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Is the World Wide Web becoming our external memory drive?

July 14, 2011|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots Blog

"We're still accessing other people as external memories: we're just doing it on the Internet," says Sparrow.

Now, all the world's knowledge is stored somewhere on the Web. It's a far vaster landscape of facts and information than we had at our fingertips before. With so much to retrieve, her study suggests, we may have to adapt our memory strategies away from facts themselves and focus on remembering how to find them: what folder it's filed it in, or what keywords led you to it in the first place.

Sparrow suggests that rather than making us stupider, the notion that everything we can learn can be retrieved for later reference might make us smarter. Having a vast external memory at our fingertips, she says, might free us to spend more time and brainpower discerning patterns and interlocking themes in the facts we are presented and less on memorizing those facts. "Once you take away the effort it takes to remember the specific details, then we might be getting more out of the contextual stuff we read and look up," says Sparrow.

Tell that to your mother the next time you lose your cellphone and have to explain that you can no longer remember her phone number.

How's your memory, and can you make it better? See my recent blog post.

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