Is Google Really Wrecking Our Memory?

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Could Google, the world’s largest search engine, be causing our memory banks to atrophy? Maybe, say four Columbia University researchers, who believe Google’s instant-retrieval search mechanics could be training our brains to jettison information we’re sure of quickly finding again with a few taps on a keyboard.

Times certainly have changed. I can still remember having to memorize stuff back in grade school like linking verbs—”is, am, are, was, were, have, has, had, etc.”—as if reciting a ritual chant, or the precise sequence of northeastern states, left to right, top to bottom. Nowadays, I just conjure Google Maps if I can’t remember whether it’s Vermont before New Hampshire, or whether to answer “this is he” or “this is him” when someone asks for me on the phone.

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But we’ve heard this tune before, right? I’m looking at a book on my shelf (The Shallows) by author Nicholas Carr, whose The Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” set off all kinds of cultural and scientific klaxons in 2008. The Shallows (out last year) expanded on that article and brought in actual neurological research (no slam dunks yet, but the research is suggestive) to buttress Carr’s thesis that the Internet may be dramatically rewiring our brains.

And with the Columbia research, the evidence that something’s up is growing. In the study, titled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” the Columbia University researchers claim that when we’re sure of access to information in the future, our ability to summon that information from memory drops. Conversely, our ability to recall how to access the information goes up. Thus, the researchers argue, “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.” Think of it like outsourcing, only from neurons to data bytes.

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According to Betsy Sparrow, the study’s lead, “Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things. Our brains rely on the internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”

To answer this story’s title-question, then—is Google really wrecking our memory—the answer’s “it depends.” The Columbia University report doesn’t offer evidence of actual memory atrophying (as in diminished or impaired memory abilities). Instead, the suggestion’s that, influenced by Internet and search engine use, our memories are switching job hats and becoming more transactive. Instead of remembering “ends,” we’re remembering “means.” Search engines like Google are simply becoming extensions of our brains, sort of like wireless cybernetics.

And it’s not beyond the pale to consider ways in which such a memory shift might actually benefit us.

“Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization,” suggests Sparrow.

Would that be such a bad thing? After all, I’ve always thought the popular notion that memorizing precisely where something is on a map as a sign of “intelligence” was pretty dumb. I’d rather have an (accurate) working knowledge of the complexities that separate, say, Shia from Sunni interpretations of Islam, than how to point arbitrarily to Qatar or Djibouti on a globe.

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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