Search engines ruin our memory, make us smarter

Researchers say that search engines are changing how we think. The question is: is that a good thing?

By now you've probably heard that Google and other search engines are making us think differently. Columbia University researcher Betsy Sparrow said we are remembering less information if it is readily available online, but we are remembering where we can find that information on the Internet.

This raises a debate: Does this new research mean that we are getting lazy and stupid or is the Web turning into our external memory drive?

Sparrow's research shows that they way our memory uses the Web isn't unlike how we would have relied on other people in the past.

"Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things," Sparrow says in her report. "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."

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure the Internet has a lot more information bouncing around it than the brains of my friends, family members, and co-workers. (No offense, guys!) That is almost like being friends with the Oxford English Dictionary and a few sets of Encyclopedias. The tricky part is knowing what sources have reliable information and which ones don't. Plenty of garbage out there is masquerading as truth or fact. If we don't have discerning minds, we can easily think we have an answer, when we really have false information or half-truths.

I like to think that Sparrow's findings means we are more like research librarians than lazy students: we might not know everything, but we have a pretty good idea where to find information when we need to. That isn't to say that we shouldn't be committing certain things to memory. Just because we have calculators doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to do some basic number crunching in our heads.

I think the sweet spot would be if we can harness the Net to take over mundane tasks and free more brain power for critical thinking and creativity -- two things that can't be easily supplemented by computers.

What do you think? Can search engines better equip us for critical thinking and reasoning skills? Let us know by leaving a comment.

Follow Paul Suarez as @paulsuarez on Twitter or throw him in one of your circles on Google+. and check out Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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Paul Suarez

PC World (US online)
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