There have been many claims to suggest that when we give our brain a good workout we can improve cognitive ability and even improve memory.

However, with today’s smartphones and access to the internet, we can store everything we need to know in one handset. We wondered whether this means we use our memories less and if the internet might affect the way we remember things.

Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University carried out a study into this idea. She looked at the organisation of human memory and made three interesting discoveries:

  1. We forget things that we know we can find again on the internet.

In one of the exercises, researchers asked Harvard undergraduates to read out some facts. The undergraduates read the statements and were tested for their recall of them when they believed the statements had been saved online — meaning they would be able to find them later. Participants did not learn the information as well when they believed the information would be accessible to them again.

  1. We are more likely to remember things that we think are not available online.

The undergraduates were told a computer would erase their work once finished, rather than store it to access at a later date. The students who were told it would be erased had a much better recall of the information. This suggests that we will automatically try to store memories that we know we won’t be able to access later.

  1. We can remember where to find something on the internet better than the information itself.

The researchers also found that a participant’s actual memory for where to find the information is greater than what the information was in the first place. The researchers refer to this as ‘transactive memory’ – memories which are recollections available to us from elsewhere.

What is transactive memory?

Transactive memory is a kind of external memory and doesn’t just have to be linked to computers. Researchers have also found that this is linked to other areas of real-life memory, especially where we depend on others to remember things in areas where another person is more knowledgeable.

A good example is when someone relies on another person to remember the directions during a car journey. If you are bad at driving from A to B, you might not remember the journey for yourself and just rely on someone else (who’s better at this) to take you there.

Do kids even need to use their memories at school now?

Thankfully, transactive memory shouldn’t apply when we are revising for exams because the only person we can rely on for recall in an examination setting is ourselves. The information cannot be accessed from somewhere else at that crucial moment. So, those Brain Training and memory games may be fun, but they are no substitute for hard work and revision when it comes to improving our overall intelligence or memory performance in an exam.  

Actually in schools today children need to ‘remember’ differently than in the past.  They need to remember the processes used to gain access to the information that they need.  Take scientific calculators, in the past pupils would ask teachers why we needed to be tested on mental maths when in real life we would be able to access a scientific calculator when trying to calculate a difficult sum.  As a result our ability to calculate ‘in our own heads’ is a skill that is tested less commonly today. Today’s students ask why they can’t just internet search on their phone to get the answers to questions.  Many schools still insist on using a textbook to research subject information, instead of relying on Google.  It is difficult to argue with pupils who quite rightly say that in ‘real’ life and in ‘ real’ workplaces they would always have access to such information.  The skills we should surely be teaching them are how to analyse and interpret information rather than how to find or remember it.  

Do we need to improve our memories?

More recent research has found that ‘Brain Training’ may improve memory however it doesn’t have an affect on overall intelligence.

If we are looking at the internet from a learning point of view, there is no doubt that we will get information more quickly and it doesn’t make sense to take this away from the inquisitive next generation. But how can we remember this wealth of information for ourselves?

Ways to improve our memory:

1) Pay attention to it.

“We remember what we understand; we understand only what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want.” – Edward Bolles

Own the information, and don’t rely on anyone or anything to remember it for you.  In other words, don’t allow it become a Transactive Memory.  It’s yours!  Usually we remember the things that interest us, if we wish to learn and remember it we will.  Some people can remember exactly what was said word for word in a heated conversation with their partners or a work colleague, whereas some may choose’ to forget.  Similarly, when it comes to spatial awareness, this is a skill that comes naturally to some, whilst others may ‘choose’ to allow someone else to remember a journey for them.

2) Use imagery.  

Pictures and images are a very powerful tool for remembering.  For anything that you need to remember, create a visual image.  The more bizarre the better.

Method of Loci is an imagery technique which involves taking a ‘mental walk’ around somewhere familiar such as the journey around your home.  Placing items you need to remember in several locations.  If you need to remember a shopping list then ‘place’ a banana instead of the door handle at you front door, a pint of milk resting on your settee and so on.  Keep the images as bizarre as possible.  When you wish to recall the list just retake your mental walk and ‘pick up’ all the items. Give it a try and see how many items you can pick up.

3) Use Mnemonics.

These include Acrostics (sentences using the same first letters of the things you want to recall)  Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is a well known mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow. My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets is another one.  Similarly, acrostics such as ROY. B. GIV is a name created using the first letters of the colours in the rainbow.  

You can make up your own mnemonic for the information you need to remember.  The key words on a topic you are studying, the points you want to get across in an interview maybe.

So does it matter?

Mark Aragona raises some interesting points on this. Digital information is there accurately to be used when we need it. In ‘real’ memory we can be selective about how we remember.  However, he says that this may make us become lazy and fears that long term memory may decline as technology grows. He also questions if other thought processes such as critical thinking and social intelligence will be affected.

In conclusion, the internet is here in the palm of our hands and we are going to use it. We can quickly Google information that we don’t understand and don’t need to use a physical information source like a book.

There is clearly a difference between memory that is stored on a computer and memory that is human.  Human memory recreates a rich sensory experience all at once.  The smell of a perfume or the taste of wine can create lots of past memories.

Some memories a computer just can’t replace.