The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2016

"The Advent of the Internet: How has Memory Changed?" by Clara Sava-Segal


Think of all the times you’ve pulled out your phone to “just Google it.” Despite developing alongside computers in the early 1960s, the Internet started having a major impact on culture and communication in the mid-1990s along with the introduction of email, instant messaging and social networking. At its core, its power lies in providing access to a large amount of information instantaneously. 

However, the Internet does not just distribute information—it inherently shapes the process of thought. In his The Atlantic article Is Google Making Us Stupid, American writer Nicholas Carr notes that the mind now accepts information in the manner in which the Internet presents it. Of course, various studies have explored the psychological ways by which media shapes opinion. But more interestingly, research has also explored how the advent of the Internet produced various cognitive changes--especially when it comes to memory. Raising the question: has neural processing itself changed? 

At its core, the entire means of processing a text has indeed changed (i.e., reading). A five-year study observed computer searches and determined that people tend to spend little time on a particular source: reading only the first or second page and rarely returning to saved articles. Carr (2008) stated that there might be more reading nowadays with constant access to text messaging, emails and the Internet itself than in the 1970s when the television was the primary source of information. However, this “information age” has progressed so that the immense amount of accessible information (stimuli) is impossible to entirely process. 

Undoubtedly, how we process information is tied to memory. Short-term memory is the mind’s capability to hold onto small amounts of information that can easily be manipulated for short periods of time, while long-term memory reflects our more extended knowledge. Much of what we experience with online reading is reflective of not only our short-term memory, but also our working memory. To break it down: short-term memory is centered on what information we keep in our minds before forgetting or transferring it to long-term memory. For instance, if we are told a phone number and then forget it, the brief time that we knew that number was due to our short-term memory. Our address, however, is committed to our long-term memory for future usage. Working memory is similar to short-term memory, but it deals more with the manipulation and organization of memory. Baddeley created a social model in order to explain the processes they identify with our working memory. As it stands, the model looks at the collaboration between three, distinct, but also abstract brain functions. These are not separated by cranial location, but rather by purpose. The proposed working memory model holds that there exists an executive functioning region that controls the interaction between two regions that process what phonological and visuo-spatial information, respectively, comes in. For instance, if we are listening to a video (phonological) that has subtitles (visuo-spatial), the information presented would be brought and understood together by the executive function property. The actual act of conjoining and manipulating this presentation of information is a product of our working memory. The processed results would either briefly exist in our short-term memory or be transmitted to our long-term memory. The movement into long-term memory is assessed by a forth component of the model termed the ‘episodic buffer.’ Evidently, such actions demand extensive integration between various internal brain processes.

Knowing the complexity of our memory systems, it is easy to understand why why they are failing us in this modern age. If we observe reading habits, it is not uncommon for students to read articles for school and not be able to remember what was just read. It is just as common to skip through a piece as opposed to reading it from start to finish. These characteristics are not found only in online reading, but in physical reading as well. Therefore, we observe As we observe that internet usage oftentimes very brief and not sequential. Thus, our experiences alone could suggest that memory systems have not yet evolved to match the rapid societal changes. The brain is incapable of incorporating all the information the Internet throws at us into its long-term memory. Therefore, the information--for the most part--is dismissed from someone’s short-term memory. 

From one perspective, the inability to store everything in our long-term memory is inherent to the human condition and aren’t failings of our memory system. Daniel Schacter (1999) argued for what he termed “the seven deadly sins of memory.” Taking an evolutionary perspective, Schacter suggested that the brain cannot process everything a person is exposed to in his daily life--people, thoughts, interactions, etc. Therefore, we “forget” certain things, making it easy for us to remember what is most important. If we were to take everything from our short-term memory and put it into our long-term memory, our brain would completely overload. Our working-memory is unable to discern and really manipulate the information it is exposed to because there is too much of it. 

But, Schacter noted this distinction in 1999, before considering the implications of new technology. The amount of modern stimuli demands that we begin to reconsider our understanding of our memory system. New technology necessitates that we reevaluate how much it is acceptable to forget. As such, it is not unreasonable to assume that the advent of the Internet would force the brain to readapt. As it stands, we see inherent changes within our ability to process information. 

But how has brain processing actually changed? Wolf (2007) explained that the contemporary style of reading is different from traditional reading in that it revolves around efficiency. People who read off the Internet simply become decoders of information. They no longer engage in making connections with that information nor do they absorb it, as individuals always expect to have later access to that information. The comfort that availability provides has led to the development of a reliance on the Internet. 

To expand, Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) consider how the Internet serves as a sort of external memory source. By acknowledging that certain information can be found quickly, people choose to not remember it. The concept of having an external memory source was observed prior to the Internet age, in group work and long-term relationships. Individuals that have an external memory source develop transactive memory in which one might not hold the specific memory, but knows where to find it- i.e. in a person or location. Studies have shown that when presented with any question (easy or difficult), the individual automatically thinks of the Internet even if they do already know the answer. Likewise when asked to recall information learned from the internet, subjects were able to remember where they read a piece of information over what the actual information was (Sparrow, Liu, Wegner, 2011). 

Therefore, it is undeniable that the advent of the Internet has changed our means of processing information. However, the brain is just readapting its old techniques to meet the needs of a changed society. Perhaps, with time, the brain will evolve differently in response to its new environment. This would be a whole new age for memory--whether positive or negative. Such realizations may provide insights into the addictive relationship the Internet has with society. 


[1] Carr, N. (2008). Is Google making us stupid? The Atlantic 302, 56-63. 
[2] Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner., D. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Sciencexpress. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from
[3] Wolf, M., (2007). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: HarperCollinsPublisher. 
[4] Working Memory Model." Psychology. Wordpress, n.d. Web.

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