With the huge data repositories of the Internet just one finger tap away, our brains may be starting to slack in the memory department. A new study found that our increasing reliance on the Internet may be affecting our ability to solve problems or learn and recall facts.

The Internet is a monumental achievement of humanity. The speed and distance over with which it allows us to share data are nothing short of staggering. Just 30 years ago, the only way to share your Snapchat pics with anyone would have been through the post office, or a fax — now you can send them to anyone in the world in less time than it takes to say Snapchat.

Image credits Tony Webster / Flickr

Needless to say, today the Internet has become the way to transmit data. But brains may actually be affected, not uplifted, by this huge resource at our disposal.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have found that users show a compounding “cognitive offloading” effect when they use the Internet over their own memories. In other words, our brains have a tendency to rely on online information over its own memories or conclusions, and this only becomes worse the more you do it.

The team wanted to determine our likelihood to reach for a computer or smartphone when required to answer questions. For their experiment, they divided the participants into two groups and had them answer some trivia questions. At first, one group was told to use only their memory and the other only Google. But for the subsequent questions, which were easier to answer, they were given the option to answer either from memory or using information available online.

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Participants who had previously relied on Google for answers were more likely to use the Internet to answer than those who relied on their memory. They also spent less time trying to answer a question on their own before turning to the Internet. Actually, 30% of participants who had previously used the Internet to answer didn’t even try to answer a single question from memory.

“Memory is changing. Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it,” said lead author Dr Benjamin Storm.  “Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”

The results indicate that employing a medium for direct fact-finding makes it much more likely that you’ll keep using it in the future, even if you may already hold the answers.

So does this mean that the Internet is turning us into mindless zombies? Probably not, but only time can tell. What is certain however is that as the Internet becomes more comprehensive, dependable, and faster than the human memory, remembering trivial facts, numbers, or figures is inevitably becoming less necessary to function in everyday life. And our brains are more than willing to let it take over and slack off.

The full paper, titled “Using the Internet to access information inflates future use of the Internet to access other information,” has been published online in the journal Memory.

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