Google, grab, forget: memory loss in the digital age
by Fabrizio Piciarelli | June 30, 2017
Raise your hand if you know the cell phone number of your own parent or child by heart? Who knows the birthdays of their friends, relatives or closest colleagues without having to check Facebook or some other electronic database?
In the vast majority of cases, the response is negative. Nevertheless, our grandparents remembered them all. Dates of birthdays and other anniversaries didn’t slip their minds, let alone dates of great historical events. I recall my grandmother, at 90 years old, could still flawlessly recite the beautiful poetry she learned at school as a child, without any hesitation.
What happened? The Kaspersky Lab has studied the capacity of our memory in the age of the Internet and the digital revolution. The conclusions of the study are inexorable: we no longer make the effort to memorize anything. At the slightest doubt, uncertainty or lack of information we immediately consult the Internet, as if it were the oracle of Delphi. Tabletop discussions are now short-lived. Every debate finishes quickly with “let’s see what Wikipedia says”. The Web offers us a answer for every question, making any minimal effort to remember or reason pointless.
Kaspersky Lab's research brings two increasingly widespread phenomena to light:
Digital amnesia. Trusting exclusively in one’s devices (smartphone, tablet, computer...) to keep track of useful data decreases our capacity to remember important personal data, such as birthdays and daily appointments. A practical example of digital amnesia is seen in the chronic incapacity to learn new telephone numbers, while it is easier to remember old house numbers, memorized before the digital era.
Google effect. This is a type of progressive weakening of our general memory (such as the difficulty to remember dates of historical events, names or ideas) resulting from the habit of searching Google for an answer to every question, instead of making the effort to remember or reason.
Methodology and results from the Kaspersky Lab
Studies were conducted in the United States and Europe simultaneously. In the US, the sample group consisted of a thousand people between the ages of 16 and 55, with an equal spread of men and women. Europe’s sample had the same criteria but a wider spread of 6,000 people, from Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Benelux.
The primary data collected revealed that:
- More than 90% of subjects from the US and almost 80% of European subjects admit to using the Internet as an extension of their memory to remember dates or find responses to whatever they need.
- One out of three Europeans, and one out of two Americans, affirm that they immediately consult the Web when they need an answer to a question, without making the minimal effort to remember or reason. Furthermore, one out of four Europeans and one out of three Americans state they immediately forget information they had just obtained online.
- In general, the possibility of losing data recorded on a device, particularly the smartphone, is a source of great stress and worry, especially among women and those under 35.
- Digital amnesia effects not only the youngest users, the so called “digital natives”, but also older adults.
A very interesting point emerges from these results. It seems as if our brain has learned well how to turn on certain information, with the result, however, that we immediately forget that item.
This also goes for images. Being able to snap a photo at any moment, thanks to the smartphone, carries with it a gradual decrease in our capacity to visually memorize lived experiences, forcing us to use the photos we take to remember the details.
The same thing happens to the person who is used to driving with digital navigating assistance. It completely erases the visual imagination, as well the capacity to reason, to the point of even forgetting the way to one’s own home, inhibiting any sort of self-orientation while driving.
The interviewees nevertheless realize the negative effects of their smartphones. Many were quite sad at realizing that they have to trust in technology to conserve their own memories or find solutions to their smallest daily problems.
Digital amnesia and the Google effect: some conclusions
We store less data and we train our brains less, which are slowly becoming increasingly lazy and drowsy, like a log at the start of autumn.
The comfort of technology is practically spoiling our memory as it offers us the dangerous luxury of not having to memorize information and ideas. No one is free from this danger, given that the use of the Internet and smartphones is already universally widespread to every age and social stratum.
Is there a remedy?
We don’t want to make frivolous and useless warnings. However it is good to begin flagging the issue now, at least to make others conscious of the problem.
It would be a difficult and perhaps drastic move to suddenly drop the convenience of a smartphone, tablet or the Web. But there needs to be a balance. So the next time we are looking for a street, perhaps it would be a good idea to take out the old yellowed map and stretch our brains, instead of turning on Google Maps.
And you, dear readers, what relationship do you have with technology? Do you remember people’s birthdays? Tell us your opinion in the comment section for this article. We look forward to reading it!
Fabrizio Piciarelli is the web editor of Rome-based Family and Media. Republished with permission.