Ever since a study from Harvard and Columbia was released “proving” that Google is eroding our memories, educators and technophobes alike have been pontificating on what this means for the future of education and the brain. The Twitter-sphere abounds with doomsday tweets about the “googlification” of our brains. Even Mashable weighed in on the subject, lamenting that we may “go into withdrawal when we can’t find something online.” With so much at stake, it’s probably worth understanding the actual context of the Harvard study a bit better.
Technology and Personalized Learning
What people seem to be ignoring is that the study in question tracked participants’ ability to remember trivia – random facts that may come up in casual conversation – when the participant knew that s/he would be able to access this information again at any time. With those experimental constraints applied, of course participants are likely to forget most of what they have uncovered in the search results! The subject matter was not a topic that they were already deliberately trying to learn on their own (e.g. a language, medical school concepts, etc.).
Thus, this study does not prove anything. Personalized learning and learning deliberately has always been an important ingredient to being able to remember things, with or without the internet, and no study has yet proven that technology is worsening our ability to learn things we actually care about.
What we do know is that certain fields are requiring a greater and greater amount of knowledge that we must memorize. For example, would you like to have a doctor who can’t answer your questions because they have to google every body part, symptom, or physiological process because they forgot it from medical school? A lawyer who has no concept of legal precedent because they never had to memorize supreme court cases? A computer programmer who has to stop and look up every command because they never took the time to memorize key commands up front?
There is currently no sign of robots taking over such advanced jobs (although they will certainly augment those jobs), and will always be a need for our brains to store a large amount of declarative knowledge in order to apply that knowledge to solving complex problems. Enter online flashcards.
The good news is that it can easily be argued that technology has increased our ability to remember new pieces of declarative knowledge, by freeing up time that was previously spent remembering trivial things like facts, dates, and phone numbers. And web and mobile flashcards platforms like Brainscape the best flashcards app even directly help improve our memory of important topics by applying real cognitive science principles to the study process– thus helping us learn faster and remember things for longer than ever before.
The reality is that as time goes on, technology will continue to help us filter our information streams and determine precisely what knowledge we want to try to commit to memory. While the percentage of things that we remember may be decreasing, the total volume of our information streams is still rising so fast that the net amount of new things we remember is likely to be increasing. I look forward to the Harvard study about that.
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