Saturday, July 23, 2011

Googling our brains

A new study indicates that the internet has changed the way we remember things. It appears that if we know we can access the information on the computer (or internet) that we have less ability to recall the actual information -- though we certainly can remember where to find it.
Sparrow says her movie trivia failure reminded her of a concept called transactive memory, proposed 30 years ago by her Ph.D. adviser Daniel Wegner. According to the theory, people divide the labor of remembering certain types of shared information. For example, a husband might rely on his wife to remember significant dates, while she relies on him to remember the names of distant friends and family—and this frees both from duplicating the memories in their own brains. Sparrow wondered if the Internet is filling this role for everyone, representing an enormous collective act of transactive memory.
To test this idea, Sparrow devised a series of offline experiments to catch people in the act of relying on future access to information—say, a Google search—rather than memorizing the information themselves. “I didn't want them to actually have access to the information but just think that they would,” she says. For the first set of experiments, which involved 106 Harvard undergraduates working on desktop computers, Sparrow tested whether people thought of the Internet as soon as they were posed true-false questions such as, “An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.” She employed a psychological method called a Stroop task. After the trivia questions were posed, various colored words would appear on the screen. When those words matched topics that people were already thinking about, they tended to react more slowly when asked to name the words' colors. And indeed, when the colored words were Internet-related, such as Google or Yahoo, the students answered more slowly, indicating that they were already considering going online for answers.
Then Sparrow played a trick on her subjects. She presented 40 different trivia statements to the students and had them type the factoids on the computer. She told half of the group in advance that the computer would save what they had written so they could see it later; she told the other half that the computer would erase it. Then all of the students were challenged to write down the statements from memory. Those who had been told that the computer would erase their notes had by far the best memory of the statements, as if their brains had made an emergency backup. Those who were expecting to retrieve the information later performed more poorly.
"Transactive memory" is the phenomenon that Dr. Daniel Wegner says he seems with long-term couples. According to his research, couples who have been together a long time tend to rely on each other to remember things. You can think these long-term couples as parallel computers. One partner might be best at remembering the day-to-day activities of life while the other partner is the "encyclopedia."

So the concept isn't new, but what does it mean?

Does "transactive memory" affect jurors? Is it something that we need to be aware of during jury selection? Are jurors more or less likely to go home and do their own research? Or is this all much ado about nothing?

Is the internet just our instant library? When we went to school we certainly didn't memorize everything we were taught. We memorized our alphabet and our multiplication tables as well as some rules in geometry. But what we really learned was how to find the answer to a problem. Dr. Roddy Roediger at Washington University in St. Louis doesn't find the results to be all that alarming.
The study is “convincing,” and “there is no doubt that our strategies are shifting in learning,” says Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can offload some of our memory demands onto machines.” But Roediger says this trend started long before the Internet. “When I was a student, many years ago, we consulted books and encyclopedias to write papers. Now students can do it at home on computers. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so.”
Said Dr. Sparrow:
"I don't think Google is making us stupid - we're just changing the way that we're remembering things... If you can find stuff online even while you're walking down the street these days, then the skill to have, the thing to remember, is where to go to find the information. It's just like it would be with people - the skill to have is to remember who to go see about [particular topics]."
Might this be a reason to request that jurors be allowed to take notes during trial? If we are better able to process where to find the information rather than remember the information, would it be a benefit for jurors to write down their thoughts and observations during trial, rather than try to remember what they saw and heard afterward?

Or would it prove more of a distraction? Would jurors spend so much time taking notes that they miss the essence of the testimony or evidence presented? Would jurors then rely on other people's notes back in the jury room during deliberations?

Just a little something to think about.

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