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‘Digital Amnesia’ on The Rise as We Outsource Our Memory to The Web

PETER DOCKRILL
3 JUL 2015

As anybody who can remember the world before the Internet age will tell you, finding out information about pretty much anything these days is a hell of a lot easier than it used to be. 

 

But all of the convenience afforded by digital technologies and their capability to instantaneously provide us with answers could be taking a terrible toll on our own natural abilities to memorise and recall things, according to a new study by software firm Kaspersky Lab.

‘Digital amnesia’, which the researchers define as forgetting information that we trust to digital devices to store and remember on our behalf, appears to be a problem for young and old alike, with 91.2 percent of respondents to a US survey indicating they “use the Internet as an online extension of their brain”.

What’s worse, our reliance on the all-seeing, all-knowing Internet is making us lazy too: approximately 50 percent of consumers surveyed said they would turn to the Internet before even trying to remember a particular fact, and more than one in four people are happy to instantly forget something gleaned from an online result as soon as they’ve made use of it.

Of course, not every little thing we have cause to Google is a precious memory worth preserving forever, but even so, it’s clear the culture of instant search engine gratification is effectively training our brains to treat all sorts of information like some kind of disposable snack. And the ramifications could potentially be serious.

“Past research has repeatedly demonstrated that actively recalling information is a very efficient way to create a permanent memory. In contrast, passively repeating information (eg. by repeatedly looking it up on the Internet) does not create a solid, lasting memory trace in the same way,” said Maria Wimber of the University of Birmingham in the UK.

“Based on this research, it can be argued that the trend to look up information before even trying to recall it prevents the build-up of long-term memories, and thus makes us process information merely on a shallow, moment-to-moment basis.”

Not that the news is all negative. Our ability to forget inconsequential factoids is actually a way for our brains to optimise the recollection of things that we really think are important.

“Even in healthy young people, research shows that being able to forget currently irrelevant or outdated information makes us more efficient at encoding new information,” Wimber says.

But it’s a cautionary reminder to at least think a little more about the way we seek out and use the information found online. If stuff’s not at all important, why do we so badly feel the need to Google it?