Boffins at Harvard and Columbia universities have worked out that people are entrusting their memory to the world wide wibble.
In the study published online by the journal Science, the boffins used a series of simple experiments to show how access to the Internet is altering how people retain information.
When human guinea pigs believed that messages they typed on a computer were saved, they were more likely to forget the phrases than those who believed the material was deleted.
When they typed a series of quirky and engaging facts they tended to forget the facts and instead remembered the mundane names of the folders they’d saved the facts in.
Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard and the senior author of the study said it was all proof that memories were changing. We remember fewer facts but more sources.
But the research could be the breakthrough that many doctors are looking for. Alzheimer’s Disease patients lose short-term memory, and it might be useful for them to have a strategy in their long-term memory that helps them retrieve information they can’t remember.
The experiments were led by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of pyschology at Columbia who hit on the theory when she was watching an old black and white movie. Sparrow had seen actress, Angela Lansbury, in something else but could not remember what. After finding out he answer on her laptop she wondered how people figured this out before they had Wi-Fi, iPhones, and search engines?
Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, pointed out that the new technologies don’t mean that people can just forget everything.
Of course there is nothing new under the sun. In Plato’s Dialogue “Phaedrus” he tells the story how the Egyptian God Thoth invented writing and taught it to humans. He got a good kicking from the King of Thebes who pointed out to him that they would never need to remember anything ever again.
“The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves,” the King pointed out.
“Doh,” said Thoth.