Research Reveals Internet’s Impact on Cognitive Function

by Jordan Richardson on July 19, 2011

The Internet has certainly had a drastic impact, positive and negative, on human history. Now, research has emerged that reveals that the World Wide Web is part of our “extended intelligence.” What’s more, we’re relying on it more and more.

In Betsy Sparrow’s Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, published in this month’s Science magazine, research indicates that our minds have come to rely on the Internet when it comes time to answer a question. On top of that, we are much better at recalling where we found a particular fragment of information than we are at recalling the information itself.

The ways that the search engine culture has influenced our cognitive function are probably too many to count, but Sparrow’s paper does seem to shed some light on the more prominent changes.

Sparrow and her colleagues, working out of Columbia University, used a group of Harvard students without Internet access. The students were given “yes or no” trivia questions with relating difficulty and then shown words coloured with blue or red. They had to name the colour of the word and the time it took to properly cite the colour was measured. This is called the “Stroop effect.”

The researchers used words like “Yahoo” and “Google” in the test and found that processing of these words was slower than it was for others, particularly after difficult questions were given.

Other experiments revealed more links between computer-related or search-related terminology and the brain’s capacity for memory. One experiment involved a list of 40 trivia questions. Students were asked to put them into the computer. Half were told the questions would be saved, while the other half were told they would be deleted. After the data entry, they were asked to record as many questions as they could recall from memory. The students who were told the data would be erased did better.

“Participants apparently did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up trivia statements they had read,” said Sparrow and her colleagues.

According to Sparrow, the Internet has become a system of “transactive memory.” This means that it has become akin to a storage system that we can access when needed. Another experiment backed the claim, revealing that students could recall where a folder on a computer was more than they could recall the information stored in the folder itself.

There’s no question that technological advances, from the telephone to the Internet, have changed the way we function from a cognitive standpoint. The Internet also changes the way we interact with one another and the way we view world problems. As we continue to “evolve” with technology as our key tool, I wonder what changes will come next.

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