Poor memory? Blame evolution, not Google.

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‘ while 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‘, and PC Magazine, who deserve the efficiency prize in coming with a headline ‘Is Google Zapping Our Memory?’ which doubles up as entry to John Rentoul’s “Questions to which the answer is ‘No’ awards”.

All these reports, and many more – Google currently lists either 570 news stories or 10 links and 152 related stories depending on which search you look at and the quacks are rapidly on the case, with one website already suggesting* that you should ‘Upgrade You Memory And Prevent Google Brain Drain‘ – 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.

*For the record, three of the four suggestions given are complete and utter bollocks. If you do feel the need to improve your memory then using mnemonics is pretty good way of going about it but there’s big secret to it, so don’t get suckered into coughing over you cash for any so-called ‘brain training’ courses or ‘miracle’ vitamin supplements when everything you need to know can easily be found on Amazon for a fiver.

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:

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.

And this is surprising because..?

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. The Internet is not altering our memory at all. Not in the slightest bit.

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. What we have to understand here is that there is a cost associated with filling our memories up with information. 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. And so, naturally, if and when that option become available, we take it because its cheapest and most cost-effective strategy we have to hand.

Where all these reports are mistaken is in their underlying assumption that there is something natural about humans carrying huge quantities of information around in their head when, in fact, this is anything but a natural activity.

Look at it this way…

Our species, Homo sapiens, is believed to have appeared around 200,00o years on the continent of Africa, based on the information we’ve managed to gleaned from the fossil record. What these early fossil show us are the earliest anatomically modern humans. There is, however, more to becoming human that just anatomical moderning, and its though that behavioural modernity, i.e. the use of language and symbolic thought to express cultural creativity emerged.

Around 7,000-10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution took place and our ancestors began to make the transition from living in a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled agrarian lifestyle, and with that transition we being to see the first evidence of written language and mathematics, etc. However, for the advent of mass literacy we had to wait until the invention of the printing press in around 1440 AD, while universal education became the norm only towards the end of the 19th century.

So, it only in the last six hundred years or so that our species has had the mean to the store and transmit large amounts of information about the world we inhabit to a mass population, and its only in the last 150 years or so that the accumulation, transmission and acquisition of that information has been valued sufficiently to warrant the creation of a formal education system through which all our children are required to pass.

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. Yes, there have been any number of learned and well-educated individuals over the last few thousand years but these people were specialists, members of social elite, and not your average citizen, peasant or pleb. And if you look at the long sweep of human history, stretching right back over 200,000 years, then for most of that time, probably the most important questions our ancestors faced were those to which the answer began with where and, maybe, when:


Where are those bushes with the edible berries and when in the year do they appear?

Where are the trails followed by the animals we hunt for food and when do they pass through this area?

Where can we find fresh water during the dry season?

Given our evolutionary history, its hardly surprising that we would, even to day, show a marked preference for knowing and remembering where useful things can be found than for trying to commit everything we know about those things to memory.

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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