First it was a search engine. Then it became almost synonymous with the internet. Now Google is a replacement for the ancient human faculty of memory.


Research by scientists at Columbia University has found that people are adapting their ability to remember because of the formidable power of search engines such as Google to remember things for them. In short, people no longer always need to know stuff; they just need to know where it can be found.



The research, published in Science magazine, involved a series of experiments. In one, participants were given pieces of information to type into a computer. Half were told the computer would retain the information and the other half were told it would be erased.


Participants "did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statements they had read," the researchers reported. In another experiment, when participants were given information and folder names in which they were stored, they were better at recalling the folder names than the information.


"The results ... suggest 'where' was prioritised in memory, with the advantage going to 'where' when 'what' was forgotten," the researchers said.


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Original citation: Sparrow, B., Liu, J., Wegner, D.M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science, 333, 6043, 776-778.