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Google Searches May Influence What People Forget, Test Finds

Google Searches May Influence What People Forget, Test Finds
“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems,” said the authors of a new paper published online by the journal Science. Photographer: Paramount/Everett Collection

Internet searches are making information easy to forget, as more people rely on their computers as a type of “external memory,” a study of Harvard University students found.

About 60 Harvard students were asked to type 40 pieces of trivia, such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” into computers, and were told either the information would be saved or erased. People who believed the data would be saved were less likely to remember, according to the study published online by the journal Science.

The widely available Internet has made it an instant go-to library where facts and figures are easily found, the researchers said. The study suggests that search engines such as Google Inc., and databases such as Inc’s serve as an external “memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” they said.

“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems,” the authors wrote in the paper. “We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers -- and lose if they are out of touch.”

The research also found that people are primed to look to the Internet first for knowledge. Another experiment, run on 34 undergraduates at Columbia University in New York, showed that people remembered where they stored their information better than they were able to recall the information itself.


Google, based in Mountain View, California, was founded in 1998 by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, after the two Stanford University students created a search engine they called “BackRub.” That search engine, later dubbed Google -- became the company’s backbone, as it expanded access to billions of web documents. Google, a play on the word ”googol,” a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros, went public in 2004.

It isn’t clear what the effects of being so “wired” will have on people over time, the authors, led by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia, wrote.

“It may be no more than nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets,” the authors said.

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