Socrates warned humanity that new advances in communication would have detrimental effects on our memory. Some two thousand years later, it's still true: New research in the prestigious journal, Science, shows that Google rots your brain. Participants who used Google believing the statements they were searching for would be saved performed worse recalling those statements than those who thought their search terms would be wiped away and no longer accessible. In other words, scientists found that participants were inadvertently outsourcing their brains to Google, even when they were explicitly told to remember the statements they were searching for.
Fortunately, "Google Effects" on memory are mild and can be (most likely) offset with a few simple tricks.
1. Sign up for a scientifically verified memory trainer: Lumosity, an online suite of cognitive games, has been shown to improve attention and recall. Like push-ups for muscles, the brain can also increase its strength through what is known as "neuroplasticity"—the ability for the mind to undergo physical changes.
This is especially important for the aging, as cognitive exercises have been shown to offset the problems related to Alzheimer's and other debilitating mental deterioration. The sooner users start, the better, as some research shows that exercises have positive effects on the young, but not always for the old.
2. Meditate: Small, regular bouts of meditation have been shown to change brain activity for the better, even for young, healthy individuals. Related to research that shows that Buddhist monks have different brain activity than the normal population, a new study shows that as little as seven hours of total meditation can cause a noticeable effect on the mind. As with Lumosity, meditation is still only a cautiously optimistic field. But there's no harm in trying.
3. Use visual mnemonics: The seemingly superhuman class of individuals that memorize oodles of random information at the World Memory Championships have no special abilities. Rather, they mentally stitch together facts with mental visuals in systematic ways. For instance, to remember someone named "Bob" at a party, look for a distinctive personal feature and work it into a mental movie. Perhaps if he has a big, pointy nose, imagine him bobbing for apples, piercing them with his nose before he comes up for air.
Also, check out Fast Company's Amber Mac's tips for remembering names at business gatherings.
4. Use private search, delete browser cache: Participants in the study who were told that Google search information would be deleted performed better than those who were told it would be stored. For important projects or items like street addresses, turn on private browsing so that Google won't remember the search result or history (in the Chrome browser on Mac OS, go to File -> New Incognito Window).
Alternatively, simply delete the browser history or disable predictive searches for some added reassurance it will be more difficult to find later.
It's important to remember that the Google effect on memory isn't necessarily bad, say the researchers. "One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will." The outsourcing of our limited attention might free up space for other innovations, in the same way that the written word made it possible to have more legal codes and rights. The scientists say the research is far from conclusive on what the long-term effects of computers are on memory and thought.
For those who simply want to be cautious, the key is just to take steps to be more mindful. "For it is usually found that when people have the help of texts, they are less diligent in learning by heart and let their memories rust," said Julius Caesar. Force yourself to memorize some poetry or music so you can stave off the rusty recalls well—if nothing else, it'll make you more popular at parties.
[Image: Flickr user jepoirrier]