The last number of years has seen a rapid development in the way that we access, review and record information. With the rapid emergence of technology, we are now guided by a constant flow of information at our fingertips. We now often rely on smartphones, tablets and computers to direct us where to go, answer our queries, reconnect with old friends online and even remind us where we have to be. While this development provides a vast array of benefits and ultimately makes our lives easier in many ways, psychologists have begun to question what effect this reliance is having on our cognitive make-up.
In a recent study aiming to explore this topic, Betsy Sparrow and colleagues explored the effect of accessing search engines on transactive memory. Transactive memory is a conceptual model which posits that a memory system can be shared collectively between groups. In order words, a group may collectively encode, store and retrieve different segments of information to contribute to a shared memory. This is often seen in couples, families and friend groups. For example, a husband might not store information that he knows that his wife has stored, as he can access that information through her. Sparrow and her colleagues hypothesized that a similar mechanism might be occurring between individuals and their online devices.
Sure enough through a series of separate experiments, Sparrow and her colleagues demonstrated this effect in university students at Harvard and Columbia. They first demonstrated how the students were slower to answer a series of factual questions following exposure to search-engine related words such as ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’, than when faced with more general words. This caused the authors to infer that the students had been primed or taught through exposure, to think about where to get the information rather than the information itself. This finding was further highlighted in an additional task where when explicitly prompted, the students performed better at recalling the location of information than the information itself. Sparrow and her colleagues also identified that recognition of facts during a computer task was better for students who were told that information would be erased later on, than for students who were informed that it would be saved. This allowed the authors to suggest that individuals may be less likely to remember information that they think will be accessible later on.
So what does all of this mean? It signifies that transactive memory systems are occurring between individuals and their online devices. The way that we remember information is changing – while a plethora of information is readily accessible to us, we must rely on external units to provide us with this information when or should we require it. Instinctively I imagine that some individuals may feel some discomfort or concern regarding this notion of a technological dependency and the effect that such a relationship might have on our memory in the long-term. As evidenced in the following excerpt, the authors of the aforementioned research paper acknowledged this stance:
“It may be no more than nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and co-workers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.” (Sparrow et al., 2011).
While this passage addresses that sense of nostalgia that we might feel towards the idea of a less online world, it also spurs thought about the benefits of adapting our cognitive systems to cater for the wider opportunities that are now available to us as a result of this online world. Yes we must remain plugged in to know what google knows, but google knows a lot. The internet provides us with vast opportunities for learning. Access to such rich and expansive information is compensated by the utility of an external transactive memory system to store it. As mentioned, this conceptual model is not new. We have relied upon transactive memory systems for some time, and have merely adapted our systems to include technology for our benefit. That said, I feel that we should all be reminded that there are also many things that google does not know. It is therefore important to be mindful of the overall effect that our relationship with technology is having on our own well-being and the well-being of people around us. Try to remember to switch off and remain in the present moment when you can and use technology only to enhance your personal well-being and experience.
Below are some links which you might find useful or interesting:
Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips (Sparrow et al., 2011).
Seven Strategies to maintain mindfulness in the digital age:
How to switch off:
If you find that your relationship with technology is having a negative effect on you or the people around you please see the link below:
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.