How Having Google at Your Fingertips Is Hurting Your Memory

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Having your smartphone always at the ready to check on basic facts is a truly modern convenience. Always being able to “just Google it” takes the pressure off of your multitasking brain to remember obscure pieces of information that you don’t need in your daily life. And while it may sound obvious, research has confirmed that relying on your smartphone to put basic information at your fingertips has a negative impact on your memory.

Quartz’s Ashley Rodriguez spotted the research from cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab. The firm reports that when they’re asked a question, 36% of European respondents said that they would look up the answer online before trying to remember it. And 24% admitted that they would promptly forget the information after using it. The report, titled “The Rise and Impact of Digital Amnesia” (PDF), is based on a survey of 6,000 consumers between the ages of 16 and 55, 1,000 each from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Benelux (the grouping of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).

Kaspersky’s researchers explain, “The results suggest a direct link between data available at the click of a button and a failure to commit that data to memory. Kaspersky Lab has termed this phenomenon Digital Amnesia: the experience of forgetting information that you trust a digital device to store and remember for you.” They add that the current study “has found many of us struggle to recall memories trusted to connected devices. It found evidence of Digital Amnesia across all age groups and equally among both men and women.”

What’s long been termed “the Google effect” extends beyond simple facts we find online and includes important personal information — basic facts about our lives that we rely on our phones to remember for us. Across Europe, up to 60% of adult respondents could recall the phone number of the house that they lived in at age 10. But only 53% could call their children without first looking up the number, and 51% couldn’t recall the phone number of their office. Approximately a third couldn’t remember their partners’ phone number.

While most people would be distressed to find themselves without a way to contact family members in the event they lost their phone or found it otherwise compromised, the study shows that one in three European consumers is happy to risk forgetting information they can easily find online.

A whopping 79.5% of respondents admit that “they use the Internet as an extension of their brain — with little variation across the countries and age groups studied.” While some try to remember the fact before looking it up, a third go online immediately, 24% say that they would forget a fact as soon as it’s been used. Many consumers consider this dependence on the Internet a necessary fact of life in a fast-paced world. 61% say that they need answers quickly, and don’t have the time to consult libraries or books for information.

The findings are worrisome when you consider how much information — not only phone numbers, but also messages and photographs — that we regularly store on our phones, and how few of us are proactive in protecting our phones against security threats, or backing up data in case of loss or theft.

Kaspersky found that “the loss or compromise of data stored on digital devices, and smartphones in particular, would cause immense distress, particularly among women and younger people.” 44% of women and 40% of respondents between the ages of 16 and 24 said that the loss of their phone “would fill them with sadness, since there are memories stored on their connected devices that they would never get back.”

But only 25% of women and 38% of young respondents said that they “would panic” because their phones are the only place where they store images and contact information. Only 34.5% of respondents said that they install an app to protect the security of their smartphone. (Of course, it’s worth noting here that Kaspersky does make anti-virus software, and so has a vested interest in asking this question.)

Nonetheless, the study is enough to make you reconsider how quickly you reach for your smartphone when trying to remember a basic fact, and also to make you seriously consider finally backing up your photos and storing any messages that you really wouldn’t want to lose.

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