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The internet is becoming our auxiliary brain

The corridors of our minds are significantly less cluttered than they used to be as our emphasis shifts from memorising information to simply looking it up on Google, say researchers.
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Such is the universal presence of the internet, that a former work colleague used to quip that there would come a time when a simple morning greeting between co-workers, something as humdrum as "how are you today?", would elicit a response along the lines of: "I'm not sure, let me just Google that."

He wasn't far off the mark. The internet has become something close to the centre of most of our universes, the thing we unpack first when we move house, the piece of technology we fret over most when it is not there, the object we not only desire but rely on to get us through every day of our lives, at work and at home.

If that much is true, then the corridors of our minds are significantly less cluttered than they used to be, at least according to Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel M Wegner, who expressed this suggestion in a research paper that emerged this week in Science magazine. This might not necessarily be a good thing.

According to their research, published under the title Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, "the internet 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" [an] old classmate, find articles online or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue.

"The results of [our] studies suggest," they continue, "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."

The broad thesis here is nothing new. This trio are not the first to suggest the way we think is gradually being reprogrammed by prolonged exposure to the internet - Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows andClay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus were both ahead of the curve on that count - but the second half of their argument, namely that our mind now routinely dumps data if it thinks it knows where to access it later (ie, on the World Wide Web), seems genuinely fresh and startling.

Its effects could even radically change conventional thinking on degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, one of the illnesses that is the curse of our live-longer age.

Memory loss is more often than not the lead indicator of the onset of Alzheimer's. In suspected cases, a doctor will sit with a patient and ask a series of simple questions to establish the severity of cognitive decay: What day is it today? What time is it? Where are we? Who is the head of state?

But what now? In Sparrow, Liu and Wenger's world, each successive generation of internet users will become more attuned to finding out the answer to a question online rather than learning and then retaining that memory offline. In turn, our dependence on digital devices for many of the demands of modern life will only ever increase.

Already, our work lives are almost completely driven by our inboxes, by that impulse to only respond to what is immediately in front of us, while our home lives are shaped by the information that is channelled to us on entertainment platforms that serve content tailored to our previously stated preferences.

If the internet has put the world at our fingertips, albeit a world that is shaped by our own hands, then retained knowledge has never been a more undervalued or precious commodity.

The question is, can we reverse the tide identified in this research paper? One hopes so, but thinks not. That Google morning greeting may be closer than you think.

Updated: July 22, 2011 04:00 AM