The internet is tricking our brains 

Illustration of internet browser windows becoming blurry inside a persons head.

Researchers are finding that the intersection of Google, smartphones and our memories is starting to mess with how we judge our own abilities.

Every now and then, Adrian Ward likes to test himself against the internet’s most-used search engine. 

“There are times when I have the impulse to Google something, and I don’t,” said Ward, who studies psychology as an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“Because,” he said, “I want to see if I can drag that up from memory.” 

It’s a challenge that’s familiar to anyone with a smartphone in their pocket who can’t quite remember the year that a favorite album came out or the name of an actor in an old movie. Take out the phone? Or rack the brain? 

But that choice is more than a way to test our recollection of trivia. People who lean on a search engine such as Google may get the right answers but they can also end up with a wrong idea of how strong their own memory is, according to a study that Ward published in August. That’s because online search is so seamless and always available that people often don’t have the chance to experience their own failure to remember things, the study found.

The findings are part of a wave of new research in recent years examining the intersection of the internet and human memory. The implications could be far-reaching, including for the spread of political misinformation, Ward said. He cited years of research into how people make decisions, showing that people who are overconfident in their knowledge become more entrenched in their views about politics and science and also can make questionable financial and medical decisions. 

“The larger effect is people thinking, ‘I am smart. I am responsible for this. I came up with this info,’” Ward said in an interview. Adrian Ward, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.University of Texas at Austin

A cadre of cognitive scientists, psychologists and other researchers are trying to understand what it means to remember when memories have been shaped by technology sometimes in many different ways. It amounts to a rethinking of how memory is going to work with each new iteration of digital devices — blurring the line between mind and the internet into something that one day might be thought of as an “Intermind,” Ward said. 

The tech industry is working to blur the line further. Companies such as Appleand Facebook are exploring glasses and headsets to make it easier for someone to always have a computer in front of their face, while Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is aiming to roll out brain implants for humans after already testingthem in monkeys. 

The potentially far-reaching consequences aren’t yet known, but research is giving clues into what it means to rely so heavily on the internet to remember. 

A study in 2019 found that the spatial memory used for navigating through the world tends to be worse for people who’ve made extensive use of map apps and GPS devices. Multiple studies have examined how memory may be altered by the act of posting on social media, sometimes improving recall and other times inducing forgetfulness

In Ward’s research, published in October in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, he used a series of eight experiments to test how people used and thought about their own knowledge as they completed short quizzes of general knowledge. Some participants had access to Google while answering the questions — “What is the most widely spoken language in the world?” was one — while others did not. They also completed surveys. 

He found that people who used Google were more confident in their own ability to think and remember, and erroneously predicted that they would know significantly more in future quizzes without the help of the internet. 

Ward attributed that to Google’s design: simple and easy, less like a library and more like a “neural prosthetic” that simulates a search in a human brain. 

“The speed makes it so you never understand what you don’t know,” Ward said. 

The findings echo and build on earlier research, including a widely cited 2011 paper on the “Google effect”: a phenomenon in which people are less likely to remember information if they know they can find it later on the internet. 

Researchers aren’t suggesting that people quit apps — a recommendation that would be futile, anyway. And it’s not clear how closely Google or other companies are following the latest research or if they would make any changes to their products as a result. In a statement this week, Google said its mission was to organize the world’s information and make it accessible. “This helps people with a range of things in their everyday lives,” the company said. 

For centuries, philosophers and scientists have debated ways to define human memory. For many modern scholars, it’s not as simple as what a person can recollect in a given moment. 

“The lay public and even professional computational scientists have this habit of thinking of minds as sitting inside individual brains,” said Steven Sloman, a Brown University professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. 

But in reality, “we use much more than our own brains to think and to remember.” 

To help with memory, humans have always relied on family, friends and other people as well as external resources like written material, said Sloman, co-author of the book “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.” He said it’s best to think about memory and knowledge in terms of community, not individuals. 

“The internet strikes me as an extension of what we’ve been doing for millennia, which is making use of the world, and it’s now in electronic form,” Sloman said. 

Sometimes that amounts to what cognitive scientists call “offloading”: giving the brain a break by storing information elsewhere. Keeping phone numbers on a mobile phone or on paper is a classic example. 

But the internet isn’t just storing information. It’s providing information nearly instantaneously at any time, without asking any questions in return and generally without fail. And it’s providing ways to shape memories. 

In a review of recent studies in the field, published in September, researchers at Duke University found that the “externalization” of memories into digital spheres “changes what people attend to and remember about their own experiences.” Digital media is new and different, they wrote, because of factors such as how easily images are edited or the huge number of memories at people’s fingertips. 

Each photographic cue means another chance for a memory to be “updated,” maybe with a false impression, and each manipulation of a piece of social media content is a chance for distortion, wrote the researchers, doctoral student Emmaline Drew Eliseev and Elizabeth Marsh, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of a lab dedicated to studying memory. 

“These questions and others are about memory — but they arise because of a social context that could not have been envisaged two decades ago,” they wrote. 

All Rights Reserved for David Ingram 

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