How offloading our minds to the internet gets us hooked

We may be increasingly offloading our memory to the cloud(Credit: geralt/Pixabay)

Is our memory located in our brains or in the cloud? A new study finds that increasingly, the answer seems to be a little of both. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign have discovered that using the internet to answer questions makes people more likely to further offload parts of their memory to the internet to be accessed later.

The researchers designed a set of experiments using three groups of students participating in the study in exchange for course credit. A "memory group" was asked to answer a series of trivia questions using only their memory. An "internet group" was asked trivia questions and allowed the option of using their memory or searching the internet for an answer.

All three groups were then asked a second set of trivia questions with the option of using the internet or not. The group that was allowed to use the internet in the first round was significantly more likely to use the internet to look for answers again.

Researchers then made it more difficult to use the internet by requiring participants to walk across a room to access a computer, or to use a first-generation iPod Touch to find the answers to the second set of questions. Again, the group that had already used the internet in the first round was drawn back to it for answers.

"The use of the Internet as an information source can influence the future use of the Internet as an information source even when using the Internet is made increasingly inconvenient," reads a paper on the findings published in the journal Memory.

The researchers even measured how long participants waited between hearing a question and initiating an internet search for an answer. Participants from the internet group were quicker to give up on using their memory to search for an answer and head to Google instead.

"Memory is changing. Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it," said lead author Dr. Benjamin Storm. "Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives."

While some might automatically lament the apparent decline of biological memory in the ubiquitous information age, the authors note that this "cognitive offloading" to the internet might not necessarily be a bad thing, given the imperfections of human memory.

Of course, the internet isn't a perfect information source either, but it does have the benefit of being constantly updated on a massive scale.

It's worth noting the relatively small sample size of 180 college students involved in the experiments, all with average ages around 20 years old.

Even if it is a phenomenon more closely associated with young adults at this point, the researchers note that at the very least the findings should influence how memory is studied in the future.

"Participants are often asked to turn off their cell phones before beginning a memory experiment. There are good reasons for this policy, but one might argue that what participants are being asked to do is effectively turn off part of their minds," the paper reads. "Memory has been extended, and as such, so must the reach of the paradigms we use to investigate it."

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