Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google

12:03 pm - July 17th 2011

by Unity    

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If you mooch around the science sections of popular news websites this weekend then chances are you’ll encounter something called ‘The Google Effect’.

From what I can tell, the BBC’s report started out the headline “Internet is ‘changing our memory’” but have since backed off a little and are now running the story as ‘Internet’s memory effects quantified in computer study’.

The Guardian – with perhaps more than half an eye on climbing Google’s own search rankings with its take on the story – has gone for the headline; ‘Poor memory? Blame Google.

But the prize of the most absurd piece of scaremongering is, at least for the time being, shared by the San Francisco Chronicle with ‘Google is Destroying our Memories, Scientists Find.

All these reports are based on a single piece of research published in the journal ‘Science’ for which, currently, only the abstract is available without paying a subscription fee.

As abstracts go, this one doesn’t really give us much to work with:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

But we can glean a little more detail from the report that appears in the Guardian:

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.

In fact its not the least bit surprising at all, nor does it indicate that Google is somehow altering, zapping or destroying our memory at all.

What is changing is the way in which we are using our memory. We are doing nothing more than adapting to a change in our external environment and adopting a slightly different, but somewhat more efficient way of using of memory in response to those changes.

It takes time and energy – and, therefore, resources such as food – to build up all those memories, so the more we clutter up our brains with extraneous information the more time and energy we’re expending on that activity as opposed to other activities that may be just as important, if not more important, to our personal chance of surviving long enough to procreate and pass on our genes to the next generation.

What the internet provides is a more efficient and, given the limitations of human memory, more reliable means of storing information that would otherwise be available if we had to rely solely on our own memory.

In terms of our own individual biological economy, remembering where important information can be located, be that on the internet or simply in a public library is much more cost effective strategy for stroring and recalling information than one that requires us to try to cram all that information in to our own head.

For most of human history – between 99.7% and 99.925% – our species has been wandering around the planet and doing fairly well for itself without ever feeling the need to cram our head full of stuff like literature, mathematics, physics, history or anything else that we’ve been insisting on cramming into the heads of all offspring for the last century or so.

The concerned, if not fear-laden, tone of many of these articles makes sense only if you assume that its natural for humans to carry huge amounts of information around in their head when, in reality, this is an entirely unnatural activity and one what has emerged only very recently in human history.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments

Good post, classic example of failing to discern the difference beween correlation and causality. The fact is, having interenet access in your home opens up the world of facts, opinions and ideas, instead of seeking information when it’s really needed such as for an examination, we can now surf for anything that we might have a passing interest.
Also, humans may passively learn certain things, but a good deal of what we retain is what we actively seek to retain.

2. Thierry Ennui

Amusingly riffed on by Xkcd.com:


Besides, everyone knows that it’s mobile phones that are destroying memory, not Google. Why do I still know every phone number of family and friends circa 1993, and absolutely none of them from about 1999 onwards?

While it has the hallmarks of another bit of bad experimental psychology (they never add the caveat, “In US undergraduates” even though they are the basis for much of this research), I think it would be wiser the reserve judgement on the science without reading the actual paper. Of course, newspaper reports clearly indicate the existence of a silly season.

It does make me think, though. While the interwebnet may not be making us dumber there is an effect described in the abstract. Could it be to do with the nature of work? Short attention spans due to interruption overload and a disengagement due to chronic overwork? Utter boredom? The possible explanations that do not include moral panic are very interesting.

A rather pathetic piece, even by Lib Con’s perversely quixotic standards.

If I’d asked a fairly educated person 100 years ago “What was that Shakespeare play, in which Roderigo loves Desdemona?” he would be able to answer. Yet I cannot, as an Russell Group graduate (admittedly a sciences graduate) answer that wihtout looking it up. My response is likely to be “Who cares? Google it.” Is this a good thing? No. As a Russell Group graduate I should be a rounded individual aware of culture, not a moronic automaton only interested in his own sphere.

It’s not a good thing that I am ignorant of 9/10 of culture so long as I have a rough idea of how to Google the bits I’m ignorant of. And 9/10 of human progression out of darkness has only ever been made by those who have been prepared to fill their minds “full of stuff like literature, mathematics, physics, history or anything else” whic is proably BORING and DULL but nonetheless is the sum of human knowledge.

I’m surprised a site which has devoted itself to excusing Charlie Gilmour his crimes, on the basis that he’s a Cambridge graduate who has more to offer the world than the mere oiks, can take such a Molesworth-ian tone here.

@4 Best parody post I’ve seen in a long while. Top marks to you sir jester.

Evolutionary psychology given time of day on Liberal Conspiracy? I am impressed, but watch out where it leads you! 🙂

All that time spent being in a huff over newspaper rewrites of a scientific paper that you haven’t read could have been better used trying to procreate.

8. Neovenator

Apparently Liberal Conspiracy apparently can’t use Google, whether or not it ruins our memory; the full paper is available here: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/science.1207745.full.pdf .

In short, Unity’s suspicions are correct; the narrative in the paper is (correctly) about the greater reliance in distributed cognition (by using the Internet to do some of the ‘thinking’ and recall for us) being a change in behaviour. The authors do not apply value to judgments to this change in behaviour though, and do not suggest it means search engine users are smarter or dumber.

Moreover, I couldn’t find the sample size in the paper, whilst a lot of the key findings have a P value of p<0.05, which is quite low. This suggests to me that the effect size is quite small anyway.

Besides, if the authors want to demonstrate that computers had truly altered behaviour in a really interesting way they would need to compare the need for full recall against possible future retrieval using a search engine and against possible future retrieval using books or notes. Indeed, distributed cognition is nothing new – we've used memory aids for thousands of years, and the Internet is just another memory aid.


The science is fine as far as it goes. It’s a moderately interesting paper that makes some reasonable observations on how people adapting to a recent shift in the information landscape.

As is, unfortunately, too often the case, by the time the paper has been through the PR mill and hit the media, the significance of its findings end up being massively overstated.


You’re rather missing the point here, which is that the manner in which the paper is reported assumes that its perfectly natural for humans to wander around with the answers to questions like “What was that Shakespeare play, in which Roderigo loves Desdemona?” in their heads when, in reality, its actually rather unnatural.

Our species has been knocking around for something like 200,000 years but its only in the last 500 years or so, since the invention of the printing press, that we had the means to store and convey information on a large scale, and its only in the last 100-150 years that we’ve had universal education. Culturally speaking, a basic knowlege of Shakespeard may be a good thing, but that doesn’t mean that absence of that knowledge is somehow unnatural or unusual and it certainly doesn’t mean that our memory is becoming degraded for the lack of that information.


Don’t worry – if anyone starts with the daft ‘Just So’ stories, I’ll be first in the queue to slap them down.

Before anyone starts writing about evo-devo they should, at the very least, have read Dennett’s ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Ideas’ and be familiar with the notion of ‘greedy reductionism’. If you understand that, then you should have a fair grasp of where the limits of reasonable conclusions lie in evo-devo.


It’s not that I can’t use Google, more that there was enough in the media coverage to indicate where the significance of the findings were being overstated, so I didn’t need to bother with running down a copy of the full paper straight away. I had got filed on my ‘look it up later’ list, but as you’ve saved me the trouble of digging it out, thanks.

10. Leon Wolfson

Yes, definitely evolution in my case.

Of course, I’m dyslexic…

Except that once our knowledge base expanded beyond that of an individual we’ve always relied on external sources; they were called bards.

The general public of the day didn’t have to memorise these stories they just had to grasp the message they contained or laugh if it was just a piece of doggerel.

With this near omnipresent information store it may be, as mentioned in comments here, that our retention isn’t being altered we’re just using it in a different way and no longer need to store ‘trivia’ any more.

The cause for worry lies in the situation as pointed out in xkcd if we begin to rely on it for everything and cease using our own internal memory for anything bar the ability to access the external source.

12. Prof.Pedant

“if you assume that its natural for humans to carry huge amounts of information around in their head when, in reality, this is an entirely unnatural activity and one what has emerged only very recently in human history”

Since our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew where and when foods and other materials could be found in the territory the occupied, and that they often told long complex stories and sang long complex songs – I would suggest that carrying “huge amounts of information around in their head” is very much a quintessential human activity, and not at all a new one. All the paper is showing us is that the details of that huge amount of information are somewhat different from twenty years ago. The more things change the more they remain the same.

13. UCLAAnthro

Read Robert Boyd’s Not by Genes Alone: How culture transformed human evolution…Culture (the internet being a product of culture) is responsible for allowing our species to transmit countless amounts of knowledge to future generations..It is important to keep in mind that the process of evolution takes many many years (thousands) and at many times, our species experience evolutionary disequilibrium in which we have evolved mechanisms unsuited for a rapidly evolving environment…

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/pwABop

  2. Chris

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/pwABop

  3. sunny hundal

    Why are all these newspapers blaming Google for our worsening memory? Blame evolution instead http://t.co/P2aZ91l says @unity_MOT

  4. Martin Robbins

    Nice piece by @Unity_MoT on the "Google Destroys Memory!11!!" bollocks that's been going around – http://lay.si/ar

  5. Phil McDuff

    Link: Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://j.mp/owJHk5

  6. Dànaidh Ratnaike

    Nice piece by @Unity_MoT on the "Google Destroys Memory!11!!" bollocks that's been going around – http://lay.si/ar

  7. Leon Green

    Poor memory? Blame #evolution, not #Google http://t.co/3G1tLwN via @libcon

  8. Google, stupidity, and Rupert Murdoch | by Martin Robbins @mjrobbins - News Feed Centre

    […] picking on the Daily Mail, but as the underrated blogger ‘Unity’ points out over at Liberal Conspiracy, numerous news organs ejaculated similar sentiments – even the Guardian wandered astray, […]

  9. Bora Zivkovic

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  10. Calestous Juma

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  11. Christie

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  12. Sibele Fausto

    RT @BoraZ Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://t.co/wSCmQSr / P/ @evolucionismo e demais interessados. 🙂

  13. John Dearn

    RT @BoraZ Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://t.co/UBS3BUs

  14. Thanuci *Thata*

    RT @BoraZ Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://t.co/wSCmQSr / P/ @evolucionismo e demais interessados. 🙂

  15. Ryo Skeptikai

    Out memory might suck, but Google's not to blame; evolution is. http://t.co/U4ZLLiF Great article.

  16. gmopundit

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  17. Darkoneko Hellsing

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  18. supriya khedkar

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  19. parasitologia

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google http://bit.ly/rmqR7w

  20. Bê Neviani

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/nuCDcYy via @libcon,@boraz,@sibelefausto,@thanuci

  21. Nelson Biagio Jr

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/nuCDcYy via @libcon,@boraz,@sibelefausto,@thanuci

  22. Guta de Franco

    Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/nuCDcYy via @libcon,@boraz,@sibelefausto,@thanuci

  23. Skeptikai Notices (July 25) | Skeptikai

    […] Poor memory? Blame Google – NO! This is bullshit. Sorry, but I’m going to be blunt. A study showed then when people think they will later be able to access information on Google, they remembered things less than those items which were so easily accessible via search engines. This has been recently dubbed the “Google effect.” I love the research, and the intentions weren’t to bash search engines or anything like that, but people have been taking this story and spinning it like crazy, some saying that Google is “destroying our memories.” A much better analysis of the Google effect can be found here, in a great article entitled: Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google. […]

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