Your brain on Google

Google is making us more forgetful, new research indicates. But looked at another way, easier access to more information simply extends the priceless process that began with writing and reading

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If you can't read, you can't learn. It's a maxim that most people would take for granted these days, but it was not always so. In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates expounds on the dangers of literacy:

"Forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."

No, we didn't just happen to remember that quote from a university course in classical philosophy. But, surprise, Plato's every written word is on the internet. And, as recent studies have shown, his idea was a prescient observation - literacy actually has a negative effect on memory. Why? Because reading offers the ability to return to written information, making memorisation unnecessary or, at least, less necessary.

That pattern is being perpetuated by the advent of search engines like Google, as researchers at Columbia University in New York have concluded. Because information is so readily accessible at our fingertips, we tend to forget what we learn online. Instead, we remember where and how to access information. (The study also showed that information that cannot be found online is more likely to be remembered).

So like so many of our progenitors, we have given up on classical Greek in favour of Boolean search terms. So what can we do to solve this memory problem? Nothing, really. Now where did we put that iPad?