Easy access to the information highway via the Internet is changing our ability to learn, recall, and solve problems using our brains, say researchers at UC Santa Cruz and University of Illinois. The more we rely on the Internet for one type of information, they add, the more we are likely to continue using technology to gather new information in the future. With so much information so freely available, it is difficult for those who are studying this phenomenon to sort out just how much information comes from our brains these days, and how much is retrieved online.
In general, we develop habits that help us solve problems the same ways we have in the past. These days, however, instead of holding on to information in our memories, we place technological bookmarks where we can easily find the information in the future. The time between posing a question and finding the answer is much quicker when using the internet than using memory, and we are becoming increasingly reliant on technology to perform any tasks that involve information collection, storage, and retrieval.
The UCSC and UI researchers gave student participants sets of trivia questions, and asked some to answer the questions from their memories and others to use the Internet to find the answers. The first sets of questions were considered to be more difficult. (For instance, “Who was the King of England during the American Revolution?”) The students were then given questions that were considered easier (“How many zodiac signs are there?”) along with the choice of using either their memories or their technology to come up with the answers. Not surprisingly, those who used Google to find the answers to difficult questions were also much more likely to search the internet to find the answers to less difficult questions. This was true even when the researchers made it less convenient for the students to access a computer. The researchers found that those students who initially relied on Google for answers spent less time trying to search their own memories, even to answer easier questions, than those students who were first asked to use their own memories.
Scary as it may sound, this may not be such a bad thing, however, since search engine technology is extremely efficient, and information accessed through appropriate Internet searches can be more accurate and up-to-date than information accessed through our own memories. The researchers themselves question whether and how relying on Internet searches differs from relying on books or any other traditional source of information. They speculate that as long as an Internet search is available, and used appropriately when a question arises, it may actually be preferable to using and relying on personal memory. In this study, the participants who turned to Google for answers did indeed come up with more accurate responses to the questions they were asked than those who relied on their own memories.