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All Health's Breaking Loose: Memory and your brain

July 20, 2011|By Loa Blasucci

You’re reading this either on the Internet, or at home in the paper. You’re gathering information. And the question scientists are wondering about is whether you retain what you read.

Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, says that human memory is adapting to new communications technology. Since students studying for a test are more likely to recall facts they think will be on a test, she wondered whether people would be likely to remember what they casually read from their computers, knowing they could find that information again.

Dr. Sparrow collaborated with Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, staging four different memory experiments. In one, participants were asked to type 40 bits of trivia such as, “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” into a computer. Half of them were told the information would be saved in the computer. The other half was told that the information they typed would be erased.

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They were significantly more likely to be able to recall information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. They did not make the effort to remember it if they thought they could go back later and look it up again.

Wondering if computer accessibility affects exactly what we remember, another one of the experiments was staged. “If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example,” the researchers wrote, “do we think about flags — or immediately think to go online to find out?” Dr. Sparrow said it “blew her mind” when she found participants were more likely to recall the folder where they saved the information rather than the actual information.

The study is looking at transactive memory — the notion that we rely on others, as well as on reference material to store information for us. For example, if your partner knows all about the Utah Jazz, you might be more likely to just ask them who is in the starting lineup rather than remember it yourself.

We still don’t know everything there is to know about the Internet’s effect on memory but, other than our brain, it certainly is our major storage system for information. Your brain is your own personal “computer,” or storage system, and needs exercise just like the rest of your muscles.

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