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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Search engine abuse use is re-wiring the way our brains store information, boffins have claimed.

Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow led research into the impact of the internet on the old grey matter with the findings published in a paper, Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.

The study performed four experiments on students at Harvard and Columbia Unis and found they were less likely to remember trivial facts they knew could be accessed via search engines.

"Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things," said Sparrow.

"Our brains rely on the internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found."

Students were asked a string of tough trivia questions, and then tested to ascertain if they had increased difficulty with a basic colour naming task, showing participants words in either red or blue. Response times to search engine-related words suggested they pinpointed search engines as the mode to locate information.

In the next test, the questions were turned into statements, which the students read. They were then quizzed about when they believed the information had been saved – ie, available in the search engine – or erased. The study gimps did not recall the trivia as well when they thought it had been saved and vice versa.

Thirdly, the boffins used the same statements to measure the retention of the information and the storage location. Again, students recalled the information more easily when they thought it had been erased than saved in general or in a particular location.

The final method saw Sparrow place all trivia statements into five folders. She found the students could recall the location of facts in a specific folder more frequently than the actual fact itself.

This suggests that humans cannot always locate the origin or spot of a fact when they remember what the fact is and conversely that they know where to look up facts when they are unable to recall the actual information itself.

The idea for the research came to Sparrow when she was watching a film with her husband and could not remember the name of an actress.

"[We] started talking about what we used to do [to find information] before we had either a smartphone or a laptop," she said.

So in a post-apocalyptic world, when IT networks have no juice left to power the net, it looks like we'll just have to go back to talking to each other again when we want to discover something, rather than relying on search engines.

How awful. ®

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