August 18th, 2011 By Jack Morton
There’s quite a bit of grumblng and back-and-forth-ing about memory these days. Columbia assistant professor Betsey Sparrow’s study that Google is significantly altering human memory kicked off a rancorous debate about what the cognitive consequences of all this digit-ality.
So, is Google ruining your memory? No more or less so than your GPS is ruining your ability to find your way around using a map. In other words – communication and information technologies are always changing, tweaking and morphing existing skills into new forms. Sometimes, they’re morphing them totally out of existence. The availability of Google changes our need to remember facts. Little facts – like the address and phone number of the local pizza joint. Big facts – like what year the Civil War ended.
Sparrow’s other findings are a bit ho-hum as well. For example, I learned from the NYT best-seller Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer (a good read, by the way), that our memories are designed to work visually and spatially. Think about it…you’re struggling to recall the name of a song and all you can do is stammer through a description of where you were and who you were with when you last heard it. In Sparrow’s study, people could recall where they placed a fact (which computer folder it’s in) better than they remembered the fact itself. All that shows is that when we know we can retrieve a bit of data, our minds tend to let that info go and apply the free cycles to something more pressing, like trying to find our way around without a damned GPS.