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Mindful : August 2017
We still call them “phones,” but they are seldom used for talking. They have become like a substitute for memory—and other brain functions. Is that good for us in the long run? You probably know the Google Effect: the first rigorous finding in the booming research into how digital technology affects cognition. It’s also known as digital amnesia, and it works like this: When we know where to find a piece of information, and when it takes little effort to do so, we are less likely to remember that information. First discovered by psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University and her colleagues, the Google Effect causes our brains to take a pass on retaining or recalling facts such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” (an example Sparrow used) when we know they are only a few keystrokes away. “ Because search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally,” Sparrow explained in her 2011 paper. “ When we need it, we will look it up.” Storing information requires mental effort—that’s why we study before exams and cram for presen- tations—so unless we feel the need to encode something into a memory, we don’t try. Result: Our recollection of ostrich anatomy, and much else, dissipates like foam on a cappuccino. It’s tempting to leap from the Google Effect to dystopian visions of empty-headed dolts who can’t remember even the route home (thanks a lot, GPS), let alone key events of history (cue Santayana’s hypothesis that those who can’t remember history are doomed to repeat it). But while the short-term effects of digital tech on what we remember and how we think are real, the long-term consequences are unknown; → Smart Phone, Lazy Brain Sharon Begley is senior science writer with STAT, a new national health and medicine publication. She is also author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain and Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions (2 0 17, Simon & Schuster). 20 mindful August 2017 Illustration by Edmon de Haro brain science