How the Internet is affecting our memories

A study says the Internet changes the way we remember.

Erin Lengas

Human beings love to reminisce. We live for nostalgia. Hearing a song from the “remember when” days makes our eyes glaze over as we think of the good times we had while that song played in the background.

But what would happen if our ability to hold memories transformed?

We’ve all experienced that moment when a friend asks, “Remember when …?” and we question whether we were even present because, no, we have no recollection.

I often find myself in those situations and honestly, it scares me. I forget things that happened yesterday as well as events from years ago. As it turns out, though, I’m not the only one.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, our brains prioritize what they consider to be memorable moments and get rid of unimportant memories that would take up space.

Maybe we’re all aloof, never paying attention, or maybe we have a million different things going on at any given moment. To help control hectic lives, we rely on everything to remind us but our minds.

If I don’t write something down, it won’t get done. I use my planner for assignments, deadlines and social events, the alarm on my phone for timely reminders and sticky notes on just about every inch of my apartment to keep me up to speed.

I write my to-do list in multiple places not only because I get an immense satisfaction from crossing things off lists but also because I have so many things going on that I would simply just forget.

When it comes to basic facts, we don’t feel the need to remember them because we can look them up so easily. Why remember phone numbers when they’re stored in a cellphone, birthdays when they are on Facebook or song titles and lyrics when a quick Google search yields thousands of results.

There’s the main culprit: In a study at Columbia University, psychologist Betsy Sparrow found that search engines like Google change the way we remember.

Instead of recalling the information itself, we remember where we found it and the steps we took to get there. Sparrow claims we are reorganizing the way we remember things by relying on the Internet.

 Subconsciously, we don’t work as hard to remember facts that we know can be found online. The Internet is quickly becoming an external memory source.

In one study, researchers found that because of quick reactions to search engine-related words, participants thought of sites like Yahoo and Google after being asked a difficult trivia question.

By outsourcing our memories to the Internet, are we losing out on knowledge or simply using our brains more efficiently?

Maybe a little of both. By not remembering everything we read, hear, see or do, we obviously miss out on that information. But if it’s not vital, we don’t need it taking up space in our brains. It would make more sense to pull it up only when it’s necessary.

Sparrow refers to this efficient use of the brain as a rewiring of the way it retains information.

Let’s take a step back from facts and look more closely at the way we remember personal memories.

In an ideal world, our brains would form a mental scrapbook that we could look back on at our leisure.

Unfortunately, though, we often forget daily interactions, feelings and activities unless they make a large enough impression and stick in our memory. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m living life and at the beginning of a new day, the previous one is wiped clean.

To solve this problem, our generation has turned to the Internet and, more specifically, social media. We have transformed Facebook from a simple social networking site to a space that stores our daily thoughts, friendships and special events. The appeal lies in the personal narratives that Facebook allows us to create for ourselves.

The new Timeline feature completely caters to that need. Described as a way to help you tell your story, Timeline allows users to post their most memorable updates and photos and creates a, well, timeline of memories in a reverse chronological order.

Users are surprisingly not fond of the new feature. Considering the way we use Facebook — creating photo albums to remember special events and writing posts to highlight day-to-day activities — one would think the new Timeline feature would be a hit.

However, Timeline strays too far from Facebook’s original purpose. Slowly, the site changed from a way to connect with friends and family to a form of personal expression.

Either way, Facebook serves as an external memory machine, extracting everyday events we want to remember, although we know we will probably forget.

Whether short- or long-term, we all have things in our lives that we want and need to remember. There’s nothing wrong with using resources available to us to help along the way.

Whether or not these resources, as simple as a sticky note or complex as the Internet, actually change the way we retain information, we would feel lost without them.

I don’t view using reminders as a problem that makes us less likely to remember but a solution that helps us to remember what we would likely forget.


Erin Lengas welcomes comments at

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