David Papp Blog

How Google is rotting our memories

Imagine a life where all of a sudden your portable cell phone and all Internet connections instantly vanished from your individual reality. Would you be able to remember the phone number of your best friend? Does your memory contain the driving directions to your sister’s house located three states away? Are you able to remember the instructional details that were sent in yesterday’s email from your boss regarding that new project? Do you remember how to spell the word “receive” or “interdisciplinary” without the use of Google’s instant editing software?

Several scientific research studies have taken place recently, providing alarming statistical data to support the hypothesis that the dominance and increasing dependency on Google for its fast and efficient fact-finding tools has made many of us much more forgetful. Our memory muscles simply are not required to work as hard as they used to, leading to our inability to remember even the most common facts and figures.

One research team from Harvard University asked several students to answer a few, simple trivia questions. The students were allowed to either answer using Google or through using their own brainpower. The study showed that those who used the Internet to find the answers actually had a substantially higher opinion of their own level of intelligence compared to those who were able to answer the questions on their own. Most people would expect the results to be reversed.

The belief that Google has become intertwined with our own mental abilities as a cognitive tool for human reason and memory is quickly gaining a stronger following among researchers and scientists in the field of psychology. In fact, many of these studies have shown that people will trust the saving abilities of the “bookmarks” on their Google web browsers and the apps on their smartphones over the memories of facts and figures provided by the smartest people that they know in real life. They even trust Google more than they trust themselves. If it isn’t written somewhere on Google that we can see with our own eyes, then it seems to lack credibility.

Because the Internet is so readily available, our initial impulses to commit important facts to memory is becoming undermined. Since we are reasonably sure that any and all information can be easily found again on Google, we often feel no need to fill our minds with seemingly useless data. Google has become an extension of our personal psyches rather than as a separate and individual informational tool or aid.

It is almost as if we imagine Google to be a human entity altogether, only this “being” is viewed as smarter than any of our parents, teachers, bosses, and friends. Our dependence on the search engines to provide us with instant answers is rising at an alarmingly rapid rate as the use of portable handheld devices is becoming more prevalent in society almost daily. Some statistics now show that nearly 70% of all Internet searches are derived from these handheld smartphones. Google, Yahoo and Bing are literally at our fingertips at all times, a virtual extension of our right arm. Unfortunately, Google is getting into our heads as well.

22 thoughts on “How Google is rotting our memories”

  1. I think you’re absolutely right – there are only 2 phone numbers I remember and they are my parents’ and grandmother’s landlines. The reason I remember these numbers is that I had to remember them in a time when nobody had mobile phones etc. Most important details I don’t need to recall anymore due to autocomplete or autocorrect. Email addresses, spellings etc. Search of my emails means I don’t need to remember addresses people have given me etc. However I like to think of it more as freeing up my memories rather than rotting them. Google, or whatever service you use is just an extension of memory.

  2. I think there is a lot of validity to this study. However, I always question such results, too. Easy access to well…everything…can affect our memories, but is that really the biggest and only reason? I doubt it. I expect there are equally valid alternative explanations. That said, I have no expert knowledge of the field.

    Similar to this, people blame Social Media and computers on lack of focus and concentration…however the same symptoms were found in Europe when coffee houses became popular. Of course, naysayers were quick to point to this new phenomena as the source of all evil. (Source: I read an article on this that someone on a G + group wrote)

    So the study is most likely valid; but I think we are too quick to accept such things as the be-all-end-all reasons.

  3. Google is always there to the rescue whenever something is needed to be known and because Google tracks the information of which so many millions of people spread across the internet, how can you not rely on this search engine giant? However, I’m not one of the forgetful ones because I always attempt to remember as much as my brain can hold after searching for things so that I wouldn’t have to perform the search again. From the time I was young, I’ve also been very good at recalling addresses, emails, phone numbers, spellings and such. But I think many people already experience memory problems for various reasons that can be pinpointed and shouldn’t be necessarily blamed on Google, plus our memories fade after years and become worse at retaining info into the senior years, so now that Google is around and prevalent, I believe it does good by giving us a second brain to look to and enhances our life 10 fold every day at a time.

  4. Interesting that it has taken so long for such studies. I saw this coming years ago. I noticed I was beginning to forget how to spell words I never would have misspelled after just a year or so of Spell Check. I turned off my spelling and grammar checking as a result.

    Although I have the phone numbers of my friends and family saved on my Smart Phone, I dial their numbers now, because I started to forget their phone numbers, too. It seems the smarter technology gets, the dumber we get!

  5. It seems that the Phaedrus still resounds today. For those of you who’ve forgotten your classics, I’ll give a brief outline to save you a Google search. Socrates tells the story of Theuth, the creator of letters. The god Ammon tells Theuth that the implications of his creation are potentially dire. He believes that “this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember themselves.” It’s also notable that Ammon believes Theuth has not given his students “truth” by offering them writing, “but only the semblance of truth.” Perhaps it’s a good time to remember Socrates’ conclusion that the “living world of knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is properly no more than image.” While I’m no doomsayer, I do think that it’s worthwhile to keep an eye on your ‘Googling.’ Life is a balancing act, make sure you let your brain do some of the work!

  6. I don’t agree that relying on smartphones is shrinking our brains. Humans have developed something we call “transactive memory”, a system in which we can combine our own knowledge to the information we know will be available within our social group. Like old couples, that are able to remember small details by bouncing information off each other until it triggers the specific memory they’re looking for. So, like you said, we’re treating Google and other search engines as a “being”, but that’s no different from what we’ve been already doing for years! Except that Google is a super friend, with access to lots of facts.

    That doesn’t mean that you should give up studying or trying to learn new stuff just because you’ll have the answer to every question right away. But our smartphones are amazing tools and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

  7. Yes, it’s true that Google has provided a lot of features and information for those who have always been able to searched. Another thing is that there are a lot of people rely heavily on technology, which I personally think that’s what most of the sources come from. For instance, if you ask someone a question and he or she doesn’t know the answer, they can just go to Google or any other search engine to look for the answer, which I believe most people would do the same thing. Because, how are they supposed to find the answer to the question nowadays – from a book, no, from knowledge, maybe, but definitely not from brainpower unless they are answering a simple question. I can see how Google has expanded its business since the beginning of smartphones, which it becomes a well-known brand.

  8. Fantastic post! I’ve never really thought about it this way and this article just opened my mind. It’s true, even for me, I only know my phone number (better learn someone else’s number in case i get kidnapped :P). One of the most embarrassing times was when I googled prime numbers because I wasn’t sure anymore. Urgh, this is totally a wake up call for me. Thank you so much for this!

  9. I know what you mean. I believe if we are going to allow this to happen, then we need to work on stuff to help get our memories going. Brain games and activities are a good way to go. I look back to high school and wonder how I ever passed with out the internet. Everything was in books or records.

  10. Personally, I wouldn’t say Google has affected my memory in a negative way more than the positive. I know people’s phone numbers offhand(I know this isn’t about phone numbers), and most times I use a search engine, I do so to learn something I won’t forget in a long time.

    However, your point is valid; can you imagine that I’ve subscribed to the data plan I’m on for more than 15 times, and each time I need to re-do it, I always use a search engine to find the code.

    Also, I feel that some people actually think Google is a “being” by not putting the fact that Google is a search engine that helps find information that other humans like them posted online. So, people end up not trusting their own judgement over another human’s because they must be smarter ’cause Google redirected them to their post.

  11. Well to be honest, I think if that time comes, where in everything will vanish, we’d probably be all dead or too busy trying to survive that we won’t need to remember phone numbers or anything else. But I really think this dependency on technology will cripple us when time comes, but then again, we can’t really go on without them now. The things we own, end up owning us.

  12. Oh gosh – I was just thinking about this today. I needed to remember how to do something that I’ve done MANY times before, but I realized I had never committed it to memory because “I can just look it up again later!” How disappointing..

  13. I think that google is messing up the memory for they younger generation rather than the older ones. I personally write down everything instead of using google. There are some words that I might forget how to spell though.

  14. That is so right, I don’t even care to remember phone numbers now. I don’t need to even if I lose them, I can have it all back by syncing my gmail in my phone. We are really becoming less intelligent by the day. There was a time I could show myself as an intelligent guy in a crowd, but now its all about ‘who gets to the phone the earliest’. And right now, everyone wants to be intelligent, because they can tell you everything you need to know, its just a tap away. Such dependence will render us unprepared in a situation where we are unable to access it.

  15. I’ve often wondered about this topic. I kinda miss the days where you could be out with friends and discuss facts back and forth. Now if there’s a debate someone just pulls out their phone and settles it. It’s much less fun that way.

  16. Although I agree that this is true, I think that the pros of Google heavily outweigh the cons. Google offers us so much information at our fingertips. This allows us to learn much more rapidly than anyone in the past has ever been able to. People can teach themselves and find out how to do things by just looking them up, which is very convenient.

  17. While it’s true that we rely on Google too much when it comes to finding information, it’s not like many of us can actually remember such info off the top of our heads. Phone numbers of important people I definitely remember, but things like driving directions to family’s houses is why we have maps. Dictionaries are used to help spell words correctly. It’s just the matter of obtaining the information that has changed, where we can access it faster. But I’m also pretty sure some people do find themselves remembering bits and pieces of useful information that they use over and over again.

  18. I am not sure about cognitive tool, because I don’t think the tool is readily available at all times. I am one of those who often feel that I had to cram all these data that I would not be able to access without the help of Google. Not only is Google helping us to remember, it is teaching us how to forget these things without having to compromise our inability to recall. The next time we need the same information, we could probably get the information from the simple act of Googling. Searching and browsing is actually not as easy as we think it is, especially when searching for things we sort of forgot.

  19. Google is obviously the greatest at what they do, I think that’s undisputable.

    But I can not help but feel Google is dangerous, in many ways. We’re becoming extremely reliant upon google’s services and that’s never good. The internet is so widely used and important in todays society and businesses.

    More importantly, they’ve got too much damn money. And too much damn power. They could become too powerful for their own good. Which will be bad for all of us.

  20. I guess its similar to the calculator effect. Because things have become automated there’s no need for us to really think about those things. Google has a way of controlling what we see of the internet which is a shame because there is a lot of the internet out there that isn’t listed by google. Sometimes I use an alternative search engine or look for a topic through crawling links and it can be amazing what you will find. Don’t be scared to treat a break from Google every now and again!

  21. I used to rely heavily on google to do my thinking for me too, and I came to the same conclusion. What I did to correct this I taught myself a couple of memory and retention exercises that exercised my brain, and also techniques that allow me to memorize more things and with greater details. Yes, good memory can indeed be taught.

  22. This post really brought it to my attention how much I rely on autocorrect. When I type messages on my phone, I always just put it the general letters and let iOS finish the word correctly. I never remember how to spell definitely, and like this post said, I rely on autocorrect to “remember” it for me. Even typing this comment, autocorrect has fixed probably half the words since I keep putting in the wrong letters because I’m on mobile. The idea of not remembering important things because you can just bookmark things is also true for me. I have so many forum posts bookmarked about how to upgrade my PC and how to move to Linux because I don’t want to/can’t remember it.

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