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Memory slips caught in the Net

Web changing how people recall facts, study says

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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Access to a wealth of information on the Internet is altering what people remember, prompting us to retain fewer facts but more information about how to find those facts, new research conducted at Harvard and Columbia universities suggests.

In the study published yesterday, researchers used a series of simple experiments to demonstrate how our minds have adapted to having search engines on our computers and smartphones. When research subjects believed that statements they typed on a computer were saved, they were more likely to forget the phrases than those who believed the material was deleted. When the participants typed a series of quirky and engaging facts - that an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain, for example - they tended to forget the facts and instead remembered the mundane names of the folders they had saved the facts in.

“Our memories are changing,’’ said Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard and the senior author of the study. “So we remember fewer facts and we remember more sources, which website you saw it on or whose e-mail to look in to find that. . . . It’s like having information at our fingertips makes us always go to our fingertips.’’

The findings, published online by the journal Science, will feel familiar to anyone who has lost Internet access for a matter of hours and felt suddenly helpless or gone through connectivity withdrawal on vacation. But the findings also have broader implications for how we learn, both in the classroom and in old age.

“In my area, in Alzheimer’s disease, I can see how this application could be very helpful,’’ said Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Because Alzheimer’s patients lose short-term memory, he said, it might be useful for them to have a strategy in their long-term memory that helps them retrieve information they cannot remember.

“We’re doing it’’ already, Small said, “using the World Wide Web as an external hard drive to augment our biological memory stores.’’

The experiments were led by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia who was inspired while watching an old black and white movie one night. Sparrow knew she had seen one of the actresses in something else. But what? She reached for her laptop, eventually recalling, with the help of the Web, that she had seen the actress, Angela Lansbury, when watching “Murder, She Wrote,’’ with her grandparents.

Then she began to wonder: How did people figure stuff like this out before they had Wi-Fi, iPhones, and search engines? She decided to rigorously test whether people were truly outsourcing their memory to technology.

First, Sparrow posed a series of easy questions (“Are dinosaurs extinct?’’) and complicated questions (“Did Benjamin Franklin give piano lessons?’’) to see whether research subjects, prompted by a question they did not know the answer to, thought about the Web.

Using a psychological test, she found that they appeared to have computer words on their mind, such as Google, Yahoo, screen, browser, and modem, when faced with the difficult questions.

In another experiment, Sparrow asked participants to read and type 40 surprising facts, such as “bluebirds cannot see the color blue’’ and “rubber bands last longer when refrigerated.’’ Half were told the information would be saved and they could access it later; the rest believed it would be deleted. Those who believed the information had been erased remembered it best.

In another experiment, participants typed the statements and saved them to folders with nondescript names, such as “facts,’’ “data,’’ and “info.’’ They were asked to recall the trivia. Then, they were asked which folder had a certain statement in it. To the researchers’ surprise, people tended to recall the folder names instead of the more interesting content.

Researchers not involved in the study said that the results demonstrate the efficiency of the human mind.

“This idea that a person has to know everything or try to know everything is just maladaptive,’’ said Richard Moreland, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s just so much easier to remember where information is than what the information itself is.’’

Outsourcing memory to Google may seem like a distinctly modern phenomenon, but it is actually an extension of behavior that far predates the Web.

About 25 years ago, Wegner and his collaborator and future wife, Toni, had an insight into how memory works, sparked by a question about where they had stored a sponge used for washing the car.

They could not locate the sponge and realized it was because of the intuitive way they shared and divided memory. He was her memory when it came to things that had to do with the garage and the car; she was his memory when it came to all things having to do with washing and cleaning. The sponge fell squarely in the middle. Since then, the idea, called transactive memory, has become influential, especially in understanding how group members and employees work together.

Sparrow said that the new findings are already shaping her own teaching strategy. She tells her students she does not care whether they recall every detail, but wants them to learn concepts. In future experiments, she plans to test whether this shift in focus increases comprehension.

“Once you take away the burden of memorization, are people better able to understand the point of things they read?’’ Sparrow said.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, said that although there are definite advantages to having unparalleled access to information, schoolchildren still need to learn basic facts.

“It is quite different now, the speed with which we can call up information; the ease,’’ Willingham said. “I think it would be a pretty big mistake if we thought an implication we should be drawing from this is kids don’t need to know much.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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