Digital Amnesia, the Google Effect—these are real conditions scientists say stem from how we look up information online

By Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
July 12, 2015
Corbis Images

When you were younger, how many phone numbers could you remember? Probably several-your home phone, your parents' work phones, your friends' houses...the list probably includes your whole teenage social circle.

But right now-without peeking-how many phone numbers do you know? Your own, possibly your boyfriend's?

Well, you're not alone. Technology is not only changing our lives, it's also changing how we memorize and recall information. Past research has shown that when people are able to easily look up information online, they're less likely to remember the actual facts and more likely to remember how to access that information (dubbed the 'Google Effect'). (Are You Too Attached to Your iPhone?)

A new study published by Kaspersky Lab, an internet security company, found that the Google Effect extends beyond online facts and extraneous information to include important personal information, such as contact information, photos, directions, and, yes, phone numbers. In other words, not only can you no longer remember state capitals, you also can't call your brother without looking up his number on your smartphone.

Drawing a blank on information that you trust a digital device to store and remember for you is what Kaspersky's report calls 'digital amnesia.'

While this might seem like a bad thing, the act of forgetting is not inherently negative, according to the study. After all, it allows you to lose irrelevant memories (such as old bank account details) and free up space for important memories. Forgetting only becomes unhelpful when it involves losing information you need to remember, says neuroscientist Kathryn Mills, Ph.D.

But simply 'forgetting' is not the issue, because it appears we've now crossed over into outsourcing information that's personally relevant to our own lives, such as turning to pictures and tweets to store memories of our vacations and milestones. And letting things slip from memory is actually a symptom of a bigger problem, according to Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist Jenny Yip. "We're not just losing our ability to memorize," she says. "We're creating an imbalance in our brains, as over-dependence on technology creates a more dominant left brain at the expense of the right brain-and the right side of your brain is necessary for memory and concentration."

Even if memorization skills aren't necessary in our constantly connected world, it's important to pay attention to your right brain, Yip explains. Luckily, a recent Study Showed Weight-Lifting Improves Memory. To help strengthen your memory powerhouse further, though, Yip suggests detoxing from technology and screens at least one day a week to interact with your environment-read a book (research shows that reading a paperback book gives you better recall than reading a Kindle), learn or practice a new language or sport, or have a deep, meaningful face-to-face conversation with another person. (We've got you covered: 8 Steps for Doing a Digital Detox Without FOMO.)

As long as you have the Internet at your fingertips, it doesn't really matter that your memorization skills are deteriorating. But when it comes to keeping our brains healthy, disconnecting for the sake of our actual memory will go a long way.


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