The Google Effect: New evidence of the Internet’s impact on brain and memory recalls Plato’s ancient warning

It’s not every day you get to note/observe/say something like this: A 2400-year-old warning from Plato has just been confirmed, or at least inadvertently recalled, by newly published research about the cognitive and neurological effects of our now-ubiquitous culture of Internet searching.

Here’s the lowdown:

Researchers at Columbia University. . . say Google and its search-engine brethren have started to reshape your brain, making you more likely to forget information that is only a quick Internet search away. The new research, published in Science magazine, suggests that people are adapting to the very existence of search engines. For most of us, the thinking goes, the “what” isn’t what matters now; it’s the “where,” as in where can you find the information.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that subjects “were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later,” as the New York Times puts it. When subjects were given information and folder names in which the info was stored in one test, they were more likely to recall the folder names than the information itself. The researchers, naturally, have coined a term for this development: the “Google effect.”

The Internet has become “an external memory source that we can access at any time,” Betsy Sparrow, the study’s principle researcher, explains on Columbia’s website.

— “Study Shows Internet Alters Memory,” Christina Gossmann, Slate, July 15, 2011

And here’s the Plato connection: In the Phaedrus, a dialogue written circa 370 B.C.E., Plato depicted his teacher Socrates telling the story of Thamus, a great Egyptian king who once entertained the god Theuth, inventor of mathematics, astronomy, and many other such things, including, most famously, writing. (Obviously, Theuth is probably Plato/Socrates’ variation on Thoth or Hermes.) Theuth showed Thamus many of his inventions, and Thamus praised them all. But Theuth was especially proud of his invention of writing, and he introduced it to Thamus by saying, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.”

In a needle-scratching response that clashes jaggedly with our modern-day cultural assumptions about the supreme intellectual value of writing and literacy, Thamus vigorously disagreed that writing was a good thing. The wording of his reply makes it sound like he was peering through a wormhole into the 21st century and reading the new Columbia University report:

You, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.

Phaedrus, trans. Walter Hamilton

So what’s to make of this? For one thing, it’s instructive to consider the possible negative effects of the phenomenon in question. Nicole Ferraro, writing for Internet Evolution, offers these thoughts on the Columbia study’s findings:

To tell the truth, we’ve done this to ourselves: Why know directions when we can get turn-by-turn directions on our iPhones? Why remember someone’s email address when Gmail is going to produce it automatically when we begin typing letters? I mean, why remember any fact that can easily be pulled up on the search engines we carry in our pockets? And how are we expected to remember information when we’re consuming so much at once and jumping from task to task?

So, yes, this was bound to happen. But what are the implications of this? Would you agree with the headline on this Register article about the same study?: “Google turning us into forgetful morons.”

— “Redefining ‘Knowledge’ in the Age of Google,” Nicole Ferraro, Internet Evolution, July 15, 2011

But Ferraro’s concerns about forgotten directions and phone numbers and email addresses pale in comparison to the dire moral/intellectual/social prognosis that Thamus drew from his insight:

And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

The aforementioned Betsy Sparrow, head of the Columbia University research team, told The New York Times “her experiments had led her to conclude that the Internet has become our primary external storage system. ‘Human memory,’ she said, ‘is adapting to new communications technology.'” Inspired by Thamus, Plato, and all of the above, we might pause to notice the troubling conundrum built into the very idea of an “external storage medium” for the human mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking literacy. There’s obviously a very strong case to be made for the idea that it’s precisely our development of external storage media — books and so on, and now the Internet — that has allowed us to accomplish so many of the great things that we as a species have accomplished, and that the very definition of wisdom must now involve literacy, and not just bare-bones reading and writing skills as promoted by godawful social engineering programs like No Child Left Behind, but a foundational knowledge of the great things that have been thought, said, and written in the past, along with — to ping another aspect of the Columbia report — the increasingly important ability to access information accurately. Profound forgetfulness of the past, now preserved in writing and increasingly in digital form, is the very definition of a dystopian dark age.

But that said, we’ll all be well-advised to keep an eye and ear on the judgment of Thamus as we live our way inevitably into the Brave New World of our collective cyberfuture. A crucial aspect of authentic wisdom is the ability, and more, the drive, to become aware of our guiding axioms, so that we can really see, know, and understand — and question and, when necessary, revise or reject — the assumptions by which we conduct our lives. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously said. Today we’re living in a period where technology’s power within and over culture and human life is reaching a kind of critical mass, just as Neil Postman observed and prophesied in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology — a book that begins with Postman’s recounting of the story of Thamus and his judgment on writing. We long ago passed the threshold where writing and literacy became an ineradicable and inescapable part of who we are, both societally and individually. As we hurtle toward a future along the lines of, perhaps, what the Singularitans are slavering to see, one of the simplest yet trickiest things we can do to keep our bearings and preserve our humanity — even as the very meaning of that word may begin to shift — is to remain awake and reflective about the changes it’s all working on our very souls.

Image credit: “Computer Business,” from under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 17, 2011, in Internet & Media and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Whoops — didn’t mean to click “like” on my own blog post. Operator error.

  2. Benjamin David Steele

    There really is no other choice. With all of the info of a complex society, we couldn’t function without the ability to store info in ways besides our brains. It’s just a fact that our brains can’t remember all of the info we need in our lives.

    Actually, there is a choice. We can continue finding innovative ways to store vast data so that we can organize it and find it more easily. Or we can return to a simpler society prior to modern industrialization and prior to the rise of largescale agriculture. All of this technology has made possible an urban society (i.e., everything we know in our daily lives: books, scientific advancements, modern medicine, long distance travel, multiculturalism, the full spectrum of protected civil/human rights, and on and on).

    It’s true that new technologies (from text to internet) have made us less reliant on direct personal memory. The ancient person didn’t need to know much beyond his immediate environment. But without new technologies, civilization would never arose or at least not to the extent we see today.

    I had a further thought. I’ve never had a highly effective memory. I have had a learning difficulty since childhood. I learned ways to compensate such as creating categories and connections, the very abilities that are useful with the internet. So, the internet was a boon to people like me.

    My memory has improved because of the internet. As I make more categories and connections in my mind, I’m more likely to remember specific pieces of data. It’s true that I know of more info that I directly remember. But because the internet has increased my base of knowledge and my ability to remember, I now remember more info in my own brain than I did in the past.

    As I see it, the choice is this: you can know very little outside of your immediate environment and have it all stored in your own brain or you can know a lot and have assistance from outside resources such as books and internet. The former, however, is only possible in a very small and simple society as was more common thousands of years ago. Some people such as anarcho-primitivists prefer the first choice for that very reason.

    • For my money, you’ve perfectly pegged the crux of the issue and the competing options, Benjamin. I think the very conversation we’re having here is quite beneficial in itself, since our major need is to remain conscious of these profound evolutionary changes and forces that are afoot.

  3. Benjamin David Steele

    I presented the two choices in stark terms. Some might prefer to believe there is a third choice, a way of taking the good of civilization while eliminating the bad. I’m not unsympathetic to looking for a third way. Who wouldn’t want to find a way to keep the party going?

    I don’t even know what a third choice would be.

    Is the dependency on external memory aids an inevitable result of civilization? It seems inevitable to me, but I don’t know.

    I was just now thinking about this in terms of people. In the distant past, people would know the same small group of people their whole life… in fact, often lived in the same tribe together their whole lives. With tribal lifestyle, you don’t need an external aid (address book or smart phone) to remember the names of the people you know and their addresses and phone numbers and birthdays.

    The number of people I’ve known in my life is vast. I’ve lived in 7 states (5 of those before I graduated from high school, 3 of them I bounced back and forth between for several years after high school), attended 7 different schools (in 4 states), worked for around 11 employers (in 4 states), and have attended many different churches (in 5 states and of different denominations: 1 Christian Science, 3 Unity, 1 UU, 1 Quaker, and a number of others more mainstream).

    All of that was before I became much interested in the internet, most of it was from earlier in my life before I even knew what the internet was. I couldn’t even begin to imagine all the people I’ve associated with in various ways. I’ve seen friends and coworkers come and go. I’ve seen myself come and go.

    I’m physically more settled now. I chose to put roots down in the town I consider my childhood home (where my one constant friend still lives). I’ve been working the same job for a decade and have had some of the same coworkers that whole time. Instead of physical transitoriness, I’ve become mentally transitory and the internet is to blame. If it wasn’t for the internet, I wouldn’t know lots of things that I now know. But there is no practical reason my mind needs to be cluttered with all the semi-random factoids. Yes, mixed in there is what I consider very interesting info. However, for most of the existence of the human species, most people have done just fine knowing very little about most things.

    The people issue is maybe most relevant. In my offline life, I only regularly spend time with a few close friends and family. I’ve successfully cut away all excess socializing. However, in my online life, I interact with tons of people from blogs, news sites, and youtube channels. Most of these people are complete strangers. Of the few people online I actually know, I can’t claim to really know them to any extent (haven’t even met anyone offline who I first met online). Talking about remembering names. Do you realize how difficult it is to remember who people are online when they sometimes go by multiple names across multiple sites? I’m sure you do realize.

    My memory is bad enough. The internet just offers me even more things to try to remember. I love all the vast knowledge. It makes my little intellectual heart go pitter patter. But it for damn sure does make for a more complex life (and, for the most part, unnecessarily complex).

    I could stop paying for my internet service, but what would be the fun in that? If I did that, how would I be able to get minute by minute info on the problems of society?

    • Suddenly, Ray Bradbury’s “The Murderer” is forcefully thrusting its way into the forefront of my awareness again. (This happens from time to time.) “It positively grew on me. I started to think: Why not begin a one-man revolution? Deliver us from our conveniences. ‘Convenient for who?’ I asked. For friends who feel like talking regardless of what you have to do. For my office to find me no matter where I am. ‘In touch’ — how I hate that phrase! There’s literally no place where a person can go anymore to find some peace!”


      • Benjamin David Steele

        I don’t think I’ve seen that movie before. It’s obviously dated in terms of technology, but the plot idea is interesting. I was wondering how the story would be modernized with what technology is becoming now. It’s not just constant noise. He does touch upon an essential point when he speaks of being ‘in touch’.

        Even something so simple as the air conditioner has changed our society.

        People used to sit on their porches in the summer because of the heat, but now they rarely build houses with porches any more. Sitting on their porches, neighbors could see each other and talk about neighborly things. With that invention of air conditioning, especially in the South, people have become isolated in their homes. Air conditioning seems so innocently good. I dare you try to tell someone living in the muggy South that air conditioners are bad.

        I just finished reading ‘Homegrown Democrat’ by Garrison Keillor. Here is a relevant passage (pp. 227-228):

        “It reminded me of my first clear experience of New York, when Dad brought me to the city in August 1953. I was 11. He came to visit some friends in Brooklyn whom he’d met when he was stationed at the Army Post Office near Times Square during the war. We stayed with them in their little apartment in Brooklyn. One hot night, unable to sleep, Dad and I went for a walk and stopped at a candy store and got a couple sodas and stood on the curb and drank them. Across the street was a park, a square really, a block long on each side, with trees and grass, park benches around the perimeter facing the sidewalk. The park was full of people sleeping on blankets. Families curled up together on the grass, asleep. Not hoboes: families, escaping from hot apartments to the cool outdoors, sleeping in a little island of dark in the middle of the great shining city, and on the park benches sat men, smoking, talking in low voices. Dad and I stood and looked at them and nothing was said but that picture of nocturnal encampment became a permanent memory of the city, along with Ebbets Field, Coney Island, pushcart peddlers, the Empire State Building, and the Staten Island ferry.”

        People are more technologically connected even as they are less humanly connected. However, this is isn’t inherent to all technology. It’s just the technology we have now. They are already developing technology that is more integrated into the place (the geography and community) in which one lives. I have some semblance of hope.

        Another problem is the glut of information that we face on a daily basis. Human psychology wasn’t evolved to deal with so much info overload.

        It has caused an undermining of expertise. The vast majority of climatology researchers and scientists in general (living in countries around the world, working in public and private institutions) support that there is global warming and that human activities are contributing to it. Yet this is constantly debated as if scientific research is irrelevant. Expertise means nothing because everyone’s opinion is worth the same as anyone else’s opinion… well, actually, those with more money (scientists tending to not be rich) have an opinion that is more worthy (or else they just own all the media and decides whose opinion gets heard).

        Another example is the public perception of crime and violence.

        Constant reporting leads many people to think border violence has increased despite it having decreased. Similarly, in the 1990s, the media and the public were obsessed with school violence despite it having been lower than it had been in like a half century.

        We have 24 hours news and of course the internet is 24 hours. We all have access to news from around the world. Any act of violence gets reported all across the nation and all across the world. It feels as if there is constant violence and people don’t recall it being that way when they were kids. In the past, people just lived in blissful ignorance. People didn’t know about the wars and oppression, the mass murders and genocides around the world. People didn’t hear about every single murder and police brutality in every city and town.

        As we are barraged with info, we are barraged with reporting. Our minds simply aren’t designed to handle it. We become stressed out in response, and then in response to the stress we simply close down. We fear our neighbors instead of talking to them. We lock our doors and don’t go outside.

        • Your analysis sounds solid to me, Benjamin.

          The video clip I shared, btw, is from an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, a half-hour anthology series that ran first on HBO and then on USA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I always loved it. This episode adapted Bradbury’s short story “The Murderer,” about a technology-infested future where peace and privacy have gone extinct, and a man decides to wage a war against it all. Bradbury’s philosophically minded rants against the encroachment of technology on the inner sanctum of the human soul were transferred nicely to the TV episode (unsurprisingly, since he wrote all the teleplays), but the original story itself naturally gets the idea across in more detail. I highly recommend it, especially since it has proved to be fully as prescient as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

          Interesting that you would mention the rise of air-conditioning among other factors that have created the modern world; since 2008 I have written (for pay) for a blog about HVAC-related matters, and so my personal radar is always set to catch media references to air-conditioning as possible fodder for posts. Just a few days ago a particularly pertinent story appeared in my news feeds: “Keepin’ It Cool: How the Air Conditioner Made Modern America” (The Atlantic, July 14, 2011).

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