Your Memory and Google

As I was searching for some very old emails last week, I sadly realised that many of them had been erased. Almost two decades of communication with friends and family, lost forever. I remember just a few phrases of the most precious emails which I had probably read more than a hundred times and sadly I know that I won’t be ever able to recall the rest of those memories.

While I could blame Yahoo because I am sure I did not choose to erase those emails, I entirely blame myself. I just relied too much on technology and trusted a single company not to make clumsy mistakes. After some sad nostalgia over those memories I found myself wondering how it is that the use of the internet is shaping our formation of memories.

According to some recent research we tend to use the internet as a personal memory bank, no longer relying on our brain to recall the names or telephone numbers of people we know. This is called “the Google effect”.

Thanks to search engines, email providers, applications and social networking sites, we can go from a vague input to a search function and still find out the name of a song, an actor or an album, or even the full name or personal contact information for an old friend.

According to the theory of transactive memory proposed more than 30 years ago, we are instinctively more relaxed about not remembering facts such as birthdays and telephone numbers when we know that a third party can remind us of this data, should we need to ask them.

Columbia University professor Betsy Sparrow maintains that the internet is now filling that role. We rely on it heavily and increasingly to remind us of things that we once knew, including facts about the wider world. For example, I am happy to know that I can google my friends and stay up to date on their lives via social networking sites, even when I am not really in touch with many of them.

However, if those emails had been face-to-face conversations I would have probably remembered a bit more than a few isolated phrases here and there based on what they decided to post online. Maybe I would also remember gestures, settings, smells and sounds which would enrich those memories.

The internet provides us with vast amounts of information but this is simply not enough when it comes to social relations–we need direct experience. If the information related to our social relations cannot be recalled on screen anymore it simply disappears in a cloud of unformed memories, barely leaving signals of its existence in our minds.


Bohannon, J. (2011). Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory Science, 333 (6040), 277-277 DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6040.277

Sparrow B, Liu J, & Wegner DM (2011). Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science (New York, N.Y.), 333 (6043), 776-8 PMID: 21764755

Image via Andrea Danti / Shutterstock.

Lorena Nessi, PhD, MA

Lorena Nessi PhD is an award winning journalist, researcher, and cultural sociologist. Her Bachelor's was in International Relations, Master’s degree in Globalization, Identity and Technology, and PhD in Communication, Sociology and Digital Cultures. She received the Avina scholarship for investigative journalism while working for the BBC. Her fields of interest include digital cultures, sociology, social media, technology and capitalism.
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