Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Memory offload

A couple of years ago, I had a student who had what seemed to me a weird approach to figuring things out.  When presented with a question he didn't know the answer to, his immediate response was to pull out his school-issued iPad and Google it.  Often, he didn't even give his brain a chance to wrestle with the question; if the answer wasn't immediately obvious, out came the electronics.

This became an even bigger obstacle when we were studying genetics.  Genetics is, more than anything else at the introductory-biology level, about learning a process.  There are a few important terms -- recessive, dominant, phenotype, allele, and so on -- but the point is to learn a systematic way of thinking about how genes work.

But given a problem -- a set of data that (for example) would allow you to determine whether the gene for Huntington's disease is recessive or dominant -- he would simply look it up.

"What have you learned by doing that?" I asked him, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.

"I got the right answer," he said.

"But the answer isn't the point!"  Okay, at that point my frustration was pretty clear.

I think the issue I had with this student comes from two sources.  One is the education system's unfortunate emphasis on Getting The Right Answer -- that if you have The Right Answer on your paper, it doesn't matter how you got it, or whether you really understand how to get there.  But the other is our increasing reliance on what amounts to external memory -- usually in the form of the internet.  When we don't know something, the ease and accessibility of answers online makes us default to that, rather than taking the time to search our own memories for the answer.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That latter phenomenon was the subject of a study that was published this week in the journal Memory.  Called "Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet is Increasingly Taking Over Human Memory," the study, by cognitive psychologists Benjamin Storm, Sean Stone, and Aaron Benjamin, looked at how people approach the recall of information, and found that once someone has started relying on the internet, it becomes the go-to source, superseding one's own memory:
The results revealed that participants who previously used the Internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory.  Participants also spent less time consulting their own memory before reaching for the Internet; they were not only more likely to do it again, they were likely to do it much more quickly.  Remarkably, 30% of participants who previously consulted the Internet failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.
This certainly mirrors my experience with my students.  Not all of them are as hooked to their electronics as the young man in my earlier anecdote, but it is becoming more and more common for students to bypass thinking altogether and jump straight to Google.

"Memory is changing," lead author Storm said.  "Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it.  Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother.  As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives."

What concerns me is something that the researchers say was outside the scope of their research; what effect this might have on our own cognitive processes.  It's one thing if the internet becomes our default, but that our memories are still there, unaltered, should the Almighty Google not be available. It's entirely another if our continual reliance on external "offloaded" memory ultimately weakens our own ability to process, store, and recall.  It's not as far-fetched as it sounds; there have been studies that suggest that mental activity can stave off or slow down dementia, so the "if you don't use it, you lose it" aphorism may work just as much for our brains as it does for our muscles.

In any case, I'm becoming more and more adamant about students putting away the electronics.  They don't question the benefits of doing calisthenics in P.E. (although they complain about it); it's equally important to do the mental calisthenics of processing and recalling without leaning on the crutch of the internet.  And from the research of Storm et al., it's sounding like the automatic jump to "let's Google it" is a habit a lot of us need to break.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested in the study Orality and Literary by Walter Ong, how the written word allowed humans to offload their mnemonic burden with writing and restructured ways of thinking. Same process, only now its on massive steroids.