Digital amnesia


By Jonathan Chadwick

Having a wealth of information available at the tip of our fingers on the internet may seem like a good way to advance human intelligence.

But a new study claims that Googling information actually makes us more likely to forget things, compared with reading it in a book – a phenomenon known as ‘digital amnesia’ or ‘the Google effect’.

The study was conducted by Dr. Esther Kang at the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences, University of Cologne, Germany and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

“Ubiquitous internet access has provided easy access to information and has influenced users’ attention and knowledge management,” she says in her paper.

“Having information at one’s ‘fingertips’ through electronic devices such as computers and smartphones often leads to reduced attention and diminished recall.”

“When externally stored information is easily accessible and retrievable, individuals are not inclined to deeply process the details since they can easily look up the information whenever needed.”

“Individuals have an inherent tendency to minimise their cognitive demand and avoid cognitive effort – ‘cognitive miserliness’”.

Dr. Kang conducted a total of three studies – dubbed ‘learning’, ‘forgetting’ and ‘subscribing’.

The first experiment tested the ability of US undergraduate students to recall the details of an online credit card offer.

The higher the ease of finding information was perceived, the lower the recall of the details of the credit card offer, Dr. Kang found.

In experiment two, participants forgot information in an advert once they knew it was available in an online search.

And in experiment three, Dr. Kang found that individuals were more likely to subscribe to an online blog if it was easy to access.

The studies found differences between people with higher or lower ‘working memory capacity’ – the ability to retain information while performing mental tasks.

Interestingly, those with higher working memory capacity showed less meticulous learning of detailed information available online.

It may be that the more information you can store, the less detailed each bit of information is.

“This strategic management of knowledge allows individuals to save attentional resources for other day-to-day activities,” Dr. Kang said.

Overall, the study shows what effect storing information on devices has on the cognitive performance of the human brain.

This goes back to the dawn of civilisation, where the recording of information on anywhere other than the human brain proved controversial.  

In ancient Egyptian myth, inventor Theuth presents the concept of writing to the Egyptian king, Thamus, to allow information to become distributed and widely known.

However, Thamus was unimpressed with the concept of writing and argued against it for the good of human intelligence. 

According to Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly, Thamus said those who acquire writing “will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful”.

“They will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources.”