By Serena Gordon
Before the advent of home computers and cell phones, you probably memorized a lot more information -- such as phone numbers and birthdays -- than you do now.
Not surprisingly, a new study has found that the brain just doesn't remember information as well if the person knows that the information has been saved on a computer. What people may remember, however, is where they need to look on the computer to access that information.
What isn't yet clear is how these changing memory patterns may change the brain in the long run.
"I think [technology] might hurt the type of memorization that we usually think about, like remembering the name of an actress, but I think there might be some benefits, too," said study author Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Columbia University in New York City.
"If you take away the mindset of memorization, it might be that people get more information out of what they are reading, and they might better remember the concept," she explained.
Sparrow and her co-authors point out that the ways people rely on computers for information is myriad. From the score of a ballgame to learning how to compute a statistical formula to figuring out just who that actor was in the movie you recently saw, a few keystrokes can reveal what you're looking for.
"People automatically think of using a search engine and computers and smart phones to find information they don't know. It's as if we're using those devices as external memory sources, and we wondered if by doing things this way people wouldn't remember as well," said Sparrow.
To test whether or not relying on technology affects the memory, the researchers designed four experiments. All of the study volunteers were college students.
The first experiment had 46 volunteers, and the researchers asked the volunteers two different blocks of trivia questions. Some were easy questions, such as "Does 2 plus 3 equal 5?" while others were such difficult questions that it would be almost impossible for the volunteers to know the answer without using the computer. For example, a possible question was, "Does Denmark contain more square miles than Costa Rica?"
The volunteers were then shown a group of general words, such as table or telephone, or computer words, such as "modem," "screen," "Google" or "Yahoo." Then, they were asked to identify the color of each word (either red or blue). Participants who had just attempted to answer the difficult questions responded to the color questions slower (by about 120 milliseconds) than those who hadn't. Sparrow said this is because they had been primed to think about using the computer to find out the answers, which slowed their reaction time. She added that the longest response time was to the word "Google."
The second, third and fourth experiments had 60, 28 and 34 volunteers, respectively, and each experiment built off the previous one.
In the second experiment, the volunteers answered trivia questions and typed in their answers. Half thought the information would be saved, while the other half thought it would be erased. Those who thought they wouldn't have access to that information later remembered the information better than those who thought it had been saved.
For the third experiment, volunteers again typed in their answers to trivia questions. They were then told the information had been saved, erased or saved to a specific folder. Again, those who thought the information was erased had the best recall, according to Sparrow.
In the final experiment, the researchers told the volunteers that all of the information would be saved, and gave them generic file names, such as "FACTS," "DATA," "NAMES" or "INFO." They were then asked to write down on a sheet of paper as many of the answers as they could remember, and where the information was stored. The researchers found that people remembered where they had stored the information more than what the information was.
Sparrow pointed out that this isn't so different from how people rely on each other for external memory. For example, you may know someone who retains a lot of sports info, and you may have another friend that's a movie buff. In the past, if you needed this info, you would ask friends or family. Now, she said, the Internet is providing many people with lots of knowledge.
Results of the study were published online in Science on July 14.
Dr. Boris Leheta, a neurologist at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit, said that while there may be unknown ramifications to using computers as external memory, he doesn't see this as a "doomsday study."
"If we're not using the capacity we have for memory, there is definitely a concern because we do still need to perform some memorization tasks," he said, but added that on the other hand, "Maybe we can spin the technology to our benefit. Maybe technology can alleviate us from excessive information overload."
"An analogy might be the abacus. Would you say that someone who used an abacus in the past wasn't challenged mathematically? Maybe the technology we think could be detrimental might turn out to be positive," said Leheta.
But, he noted that this is an initial study, and more studies need to be done to confirm the findings and figure out exactly what the potential consequences might be.
Visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine for tips on remembering.