This is the question that I was asked this week on BBC Radio. A recent study from researchers at Columbia University found that people are less likely to remember what they read online, but they could remember where they read it.
These questions were raised: Is this a good thing? Are computers making us lazy? Are we reluctant to think for ourselves when you can Google it?
My own research sheds light on these issues. In a study of several hundred young people, I looked at the way technology was impacted the way they remember and process information. We first identified whether people were active or passive users of digital technology by using a questionnaire that reflected their interactions with different internet forms, including Facebook and Twitter. The average number of hours a person spent consumed with these activities was the basis of their classification. The answer was clear: digital technology does change the way your brain works.
But it is not a bad thing. Active technology users were better at processing information in parallel. They could quickly adjust to a change in an information stream and picked up on what they needed to do. In contrast, passive technology users processed information successively and found it easier to focus on a single target at a time.
In a modern workplace where multitasking is standard, technology can give us an edge. The old school way of remembering facts and information is not necessary. With Google at our fingertips, we don't need to.
But what we do need to know is know how to use this information. And for that, we need Working Memory-your 'active' memory, the memory that you use to work with information. Working Memory is the skill needed to draw connections between information, to quickly shift from one task to another, and to calmly manage multiple streams of information.
So is technology making our brains lazy? No, I would suggest that it is making us more efficient. Instead of having to fill up our mental 'space' with lots of information, this space is now freed up so focus on other things. Like how to best succeed in the workplace with creative and efficient ideas using what you know!
Reference: Alloway TP & Alloway RG. Attentional control and engagement with digital technology, 2011, Nature Precedings.