Is the Internet making us stupid?

by Gemma Maidment on 22 July 2011

I came across an article on the BBC News website: ‘Internet’s memory effects quantified in study’and it made me stop and think – is the Internet genuinely making us stupid? The article discusses a fascinating study that is based on the theory that married couples or long term partners rely on each others’ memories, and it suggests that today we are starting to do the same with the Internet. The study shows that if we know that information is stored somewhere online then we are far more likely to remember where the information can be found rather than what the information is.

I thought this was really interesting and as I started to think about my own life I realised it wasn’t just the Internet, but many forms of technology that has had this effect on my memory.

For instance, the number of times my grandparents have been shocked about the fact I can’t really do mental arithmetic, and my reply has always been that its OK, I know how to use a calculator, and would get out my phone without even thinking about it. Similarly, when my phone was stolen I couldn’t remember any phone numbers except my home landline and my own mobile number. When I was younger I could remember so many phone numbers but now, just 2. But when do you need to remember phone numbers? All my numbers are stored in my phone. (This isn’t as convenient though if your phone has been stolen and you now have no way of getting in touch with anyone except your mum, who lives in another country and isn’t really much use right now.) I would argue that instant access to traditional tools such as calculators and address books through personal technology has definitely changed the way, and the types, of information that I remember.

Another interesting example specifically about the Internet having an effect on the memory is at pub quizzes. I regularly go to pub quizzes with a few friends and we can always  ‘remember where we had seen that in the paper’ but that is all, blank. I suppose quizzes are meant to be hard on the brain, but it is fascinating that all of us would know exactly where to go to find the information, and if we had heard of it, we would remember exactly where we had seen or heard the fact before, but remembering the fact or information itself seems to be much harder.

Is it a bad thing that we no longer remember facts, but instead remember folders? As the article points out, it isn’t really that we are becoming more stupid or that our memories are getting worse (although I do think mine is getting worse with old age but that’s a completely different issue). We are just using our memories in a different way. Should we try and exercise our memories and brains to retain the old skill of remembering facts and not files? Maybe. But maybe there is just more to remember now so it’s a matter of natural progression to only remember what you need to and rely on something else for the rest.

Have you seen a change in your memory? Or the way or the things that your children remember? Once you start thinking about it, there are probably loads of examples that will pop to mind…

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