MET:Transactive Memory & The Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips

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This page was originally authored by Kevin Andrews 2014W-ETEC510-65D

“As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.” -Emerson


Brain Connected Online

In a development that would have seemed extraordinary just over a decade ago, many of us have constant access to information. If we need to find out the score of a ball game, learn how to perform a complicated statistical test, or simply remember the name of the actress in the classic movie we are viewing, we need only turn to our laptops, tablets, or smartphones and we can find the answers immediately. It has become so commonplace to look up the answer to any question the moment it occurs that it can feel like going through withdrawal when we can’t find out something immediately. We are seldom offline unless by choice, and it is hard to remember how we found information before the Internet became a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The Internet, with its search engines such as Google and databases such as IMDB and the information stored there, has become an external memory source that we can access at any time.

Storing information externally is nothing particularly novel, even before the advent of computers. In any long-term relationship, a team work environment, or other ongoing group, people typically develop a group or transactive memory, a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information. Like linked computers that can address each other’s memories, people in groups form transactive memory systems. Present research explores whether having online access to search engines, databases, and the like, has become a primary transactive memory source in itself. It is important to investigate whether the Internet has become an external memory system that is primed by the need to acquire information. If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, do we think about flags or immediately think to go online to find out? Our research then tested whether, once information has been accessed, our internal encoding is increased for where the information is to be found rather than for the information itself.

Human Memory

Another Piece Of The Puzzle

Since time immemorial, humans have tried to understand what memory is, how it works and why it goes wrong. It is an important part of what makes us truly human, and yet it is one of the most elusive and misunderstood of human attributes.The popular image of memory is as a kind of tiny filing cabinet full of individual memory folders in which information is stored away, or perhaps as a neural super-computer of huge capacity and speed. However, in the light of modern biological and psychological knowledge, these metaphors may not be entirely useful and, today, experts believe that memory is in fact far more complex and subtle than that

It seems that our memory is located not in one particular place in the brain, but is instead a brain-wide process in which several different areas of the brain act in conjunction with one another (sometimes referred to as distributed processing). For example, the simple act of riding a bike is actively and seamlessly reconstructed by the brain from many different areas: the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one area, the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another, the memory of biking safety rules from another, and that nervous feeling when a car veers dangerously close comes from still another. Each element of a memory (sights, sounds, words, emotions) is encoded in the same part of the brain that originally created that fragment (visual cortex, motor cortex, language area, etc), and recall of a memory effectively reactivates the neural patterns generated during the original encoding. Thus, a better image might be that of a complex web, in which the threads symbolize the various elements of a memory, that join at nodes or intersection points to form a whole rounded memory of a person, object or event. This kind of distributed memory ensures that even if part of the brain is damaged, some parts of an experience may still remain. Neurologists are only beginning to understand how the parts are reassembled into a coherent whole.

What Is Memory?

Creative Memory

Memory is our ability to encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information and past experiences in the human brain. It can be thought of in general terms as the use of past experience to affect or influence current behaviour. Memory is the sum total of what we remember, and gives us the capability to learn and adapt from previous experiences as well as to build relationships. It is the ability to remember past experiences, and the power or process of recalling to mind previously learned facts, experiences, impressions, skills and habits. It is the store of things learned and retained from our activity or experience, as evidenced by modification of structure or behaviour, or by recall and recognition.

Memory is related to but distinct from learning, which is the process by which we acquire knowledge of the world and modify our subsequent behaviour. During learning, neurons that fire together to produce a particular experience are altered so that they have a tendency to fire together again. For example, we learn a new language by studying it, but we then speak it by using our memory to retrieve the words that we have learned. Thus, memory depends on learning because it lets us store and retrieve learned information. But learning also depends to some extent on memory, in that the knowledge stored in our memory provides the framework to which new knowledge is linked by association and inference. This ability of humans to call on past memories in order to imagine the future and to plan future courses of action is a hugely advantageous attribute in our survival and development as a species.

The Study Of Human Memory

Boy Doing Homework

The study of human memory stretches back at least 2,000 years to Aristotle’s early attempts to understand memory in his treatise “On the Soul”. In this, he compared the human mind to a blank slate and theorized that all humans are born free of any knowledge and are merely the sum of their experiences. Aristotle compared memory to making impressions in wax, sometimes referred to as the "storehouse metaphor", a theory of memory which held sway for many centuries.

The German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon first proposed in 1904 the idea that experience leaves a physical trace, which he called an engram, on specific webs of neurons in the brain. The British psychologist Sir Frederick Bartlett is considered one of the founding fathers of cognitive psychology, and his research in the 1930s into the recall of stories greatly influenced later ideas on how the brain stores memories. With advances in technology in the 1940s, the field of neuropsychology emerged and with it a biological basis for theories of encoding. Karl Lashley devoted 25 years of his life to research on rats in mazes, in a systematic attempt to pinpoint where memory traces or engrams are formed in the brain, only to conclude in 1950 that memories are not localized to one part of the brain at all, but are widely distributed throughout the cortex, and that, if certain parts of the brain are damaged, other parts of the brain may take on the role of the damaged portion.

As computer technology developed in the 1950s and 1960s, parallels between computer and brain processes became apparent, leading to advances in the understanding of the encoding, storage and retrieval processes of memory. The computer metaphor is, however, essentially just a more sophisticated version of the earlier storehouse view of memory, based on the rather simplistic and misleading assumption that a memory is just a simple copy of the original experience. Nowadays, the study of human memory is considered part of the disciplines of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and the interdisciplinary link between the two which is known as cognitive neuroscience.

The Human Brain

The Brain Is The Center of All Knowledge

In all vertebrates and most invertebrates, the brain is the centre of the nervous system. It allows them to collect information (sensory system), act on that information (motor system) and store the result for future reference (memory), thus effectively making life possible. The human brain is perhaps the most complex living structure known in the universe. Although it has the same general structure as the brains of other mammals, is over three times as large as the brain of a typical mammal with an equivalent body size, and much more complex.

The adult human brain weighs on average about 1.5 kg (3lbs), and is about the size of a small head of cauliflower. It is very soft (having a consistency similar to soft gelatine or firm tofu) and, despite being referred to as "grey matter", the live brain is actually pinkish-beige in colour (although it may turn grey after death) and slightly off-white in the interior. The interior white matter provides most of the brain's structure and communications, while the grey matter that surrounds the white matter provides most of the actual computation and thinking functions (although this is, of course, a simplification).

Almost 80% of the brain consists of water (mainly in the cytoplasm of its cells), with a further 10-12% being fatty lipids and 8% protein. Although it accounts for just 2% of body weight, it uses fully 20-25% of the body's oxygen supply, nutrients, and glucose (as fuel), all of which are supplied by constant blood flow. It is protected by the thick bones of the skull, suspended in cerebrospinal fluid, and isolated from the bloodstream by the blood-brain barrier, but the delicate nature of the human brain nevertheless makes it susceptible to many types of damage and disease.

It is a hugely complex organ, with an estimated 100 billion neurons passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. It continuously receives and analyzes sensory information, responding by controlling all bodily actions and functions. It is also the centre of higher-order thinking, learning and memory, and gives us the power to think, plan, speak, imagine, dream, reason and experience emotions.

Memory Parts Of The Human Brain

The human brain is hugely interconnected with the cerebellum playing an important role in balance, motor control, cognitive functions such as attention, language, emotional functions and in the processing of procedural memories. The cerebral cortex plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. It is divided into four main regions or lobes, which cover both hemispheres: the frontal lobe (involved in conscious thought and higher mental functions such as decision-making, particularly in that part of the frontal lobe known as the prefrontal cortex, and plays an important part in processing short-term memories and retaining longer term memories which are not task-based); the parietal lobe (involved in integrating sensory information from the various senses, and in the manipulation of objects in determining spatial sense and navigation); the temporal lobe (involved with the senses of smell and sound, the processing of semantics in both speech and vision, including the processing of complex stimuli like faces and scenes, and plays a key role in the formation of long-term memory); and the occipital lobe (mainly involved with the sense of sight).

The medial temporal lobe (the inner part of the temporal lobe, near the divide between the left and right hemispheres) in particular is thought to be involved in declarative and episodic memory. Deep inside the medial temporal lobe is the region of the brain known as the limbic system, which includes the hippocampus, the amygdala, the cingulate gyrus, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the epithalamus, the mammillary body and other organs, many of which are of particular relevance to the processing of memory.

The hippocampus, for example, is essential for memory function, particularly the transference from short- to long-term memory and control of spatial memory and behaviour. The hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain capable actually growing new neurons, although this ability is impaired by stress-related glucocorticoids. The amygdala also performs a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions and social and sexual behaviour, as well as regulating the sense of smell.

Memory Capacity of the Human Brain

The human brain consists of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or a USB flash drive. Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.

The brain’s exact storage capacity for memories is difficult to calculate. First, we do not know how to measure the size of a memory. Second, certain memories involve more details and thus take up more space; other memories are forgotten and thus free up space. This is good news because our brain can keep up as we seek new experiences over our lifetime.

Proponents of Transactive Memory And The Google Effect

Transactive memory has been around as long as humans have communicated. We've always relied on experts within our group (which used to be other humans) and, with the invention of the printing press, stored information in books. In those cases, we had to remember only who or what held the information. Storing information externally is nothing particularly novel, even before the advent of computers. In any long term relationship, a team work environment, or other ongoing group, people typically develop a group or transactive memory, a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information.

We are now at a point where researchers can finally show how our brains and memories might react to this omnipresent store of information. In the case of Dr. Betsy Sparrow, Nicholas Carr, and Daniel Wegner they have found from their experiments that when American students expect to have access to information in the future, they remember that information less well. But there’s a positive flipside: they’re also better at remembering where to find the information again.

Nicholas Carr

In 2008, Nicholas Carr asked if Google was making us stupid in a provocative article that raised the prospect of weakening memories, among other potential ills. In his later book, The Shallows, Carr wrote, “the web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.” Critics pointed out that Carr had little evidence for his arguments while others suggested different ways in which the Internet could affect our memories.

Dr. Betsy Sparrow

Several years ago, Betsy Sparrow became exasperated watching an old black-and-white film called Gaslight. She recognized the young actress playing the maid but couldn't remember her name. Luckily, she had her smartphone and found her name. That incident sparked a conversation with her husband that continued into the night about how people were able to find information quickly before the Internet.

The Experiments - Google Effects on Memory

Student Using A Tablet

In an experiment that would be the first of it's kind, Dr. Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University together with Jenny Liu from the University of Wisconsin and Daniel Wegner set out to determine if there was any cognitive consequences to using computers and the Internet for memory retrieval. First, Sparrow showed that when US students are faced with hard questions, they naturally think about computers. These machines are instinctively connected to the concept of missing knowledge. Sparrow recruited 46 students and asked them a series of trivia questions. Afterwards, they saw a list of words written in different colours and had to name the colours in question. People take longer to do this if the word captures their attention, because they find it more difficult to ignore its meaning and focus on its colour. Sparrow found that after seeing questions they couldn’t answer, the volunteers’ reaction times were indeed slower if they saw computer-related words (‘Google’, ‘browser’, ‘internet’) than unrelated ones (‘telephone’, ‘paper’, ‘pencil’). She writes, “It seems that when we are faced with a gap in our knowledge, we are primed to turn to the computer to rectify the situation.” Next, Sparrow asked 60 students to read 40 trivia statements (such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”) and type them into a computer. Later, they had to write down as many of the statements as they could.

She found that the volunteers remembered fewer facts if they were told that the computer would save their work, than if they thought their words would be erased. If they knew they could look up the statements later, they apparently didn’t make the effort to remember them. “Since search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up,” says Sparrow. This doesn’t mean that accessible information weakens memories. Sparrow repeated the trivia experiment with 28 students but this time, after typing in every statement, they were told that their entry had been saved, saved in a specific folder, or erased. Later, they saw 30 statements, half of which matched the earlier ones, and half of which had been subtly altered. When asked if the statements were exactly what they had read, the students were worst at spotting the changes if they thought their words had been saved somewhere. As before, having information on tap obviated the need to memorise it. However, when asked if the statements were saved or erased, the students were better at identifying the ones that had been saved than the ones that had been erased. If they thought that information would be accessible later, they were worse at remembering the actual trivia, but better at remembering whether it would be accessible.

They even remembered where the statements were stored more accurately than the statements themselves. In a final experiment, Sparrow replayed the trivia game with 34 students, who expected all the statements to be saved into one of several generic folders, named ‘Facts’, ‘Items’, ‘Info’ and so on. When they were asked to write down as many of the statements as possible, they only remembered a quarter of them. But when Sparrow prompted them with vague identifiers (such as, “What folder was the statement about the ostrich saved in?”), they remembered the location of half of the statements. Sparrow writes, “this is preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item.”

Transactive Memory Stop Motion Video

Transative Memory Stop Motion Video

The Verdict - Is The Internet Wrecking Our Memory?

It is important to keep in mind that in many situations no single person feels the need to know and remember everything because we can rely on others to fill in the gaps where necessary. We store information through our social connections as well as in our brains. The same thing happens with reference books. I may not remember all the facts and stories in my book shelf but I’ve got a good idea of where to find any particular titbit. The Internet is the same type of external memory.

Interview With Dr. Sparrow

Sparrow states that "our results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology. Just as we learn through transactive memory who knows what in our families and offices, we are learning what the computer “knows” and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer-based memories. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.” (Sparrow 2011) And perhaps even this is changing. The act of finding information is becoming ever easier as searching becomes a central part of our software. Gmail, for example, is structured around searching rather than folders. Everything from folders to Flickr photos can be tagged to make them easier to find. Rather than remembering where we’ve saved a piece of information, we may end up remembering the sorts of keywords that will allow us to find a forgotten fact. As our technology changes, so do we. Are we better or worse off for it? Sparrow’s work is hardly going to end a debate that has raged for millennia. Socrates himself feared that the advent of that most dastardly of technologies – the written word – would weaken our memories to our mental detriment. Similar concerns were raised at the advent of newspapers, mass education, the gramophone, and the printing press. Media technology scares are not new. With that in mind, Sparrow states that “it may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.” (Sparrow 2011)

In addition to summarizing Sparrow's (2011) and Carr's (2008) conclusions, the animation below provides several reasons why the internet is becoming an increasingly preferred form of transactive memory. It also presents additional implications, both positive and negative, of using search engines to store and organize our information.

Expanding our Memory

Further Implications Of Living In The Digital Age

Students Texting

What is of interst in Dr. Sparrow's study is the way it reveals the bounded nature of memory. Although we like to think of our cortical hard drive as infinite in capacity, it’s actually pretty constrained, which is why we’re always looking for ways to not remember stuff. If we know that a fact is only a Google away, then we’re not going to waste precious synaptic space on it. Better to let a server remember. I think it’s also worth pointing out that, although we’ve been romanticizing human memory ever since Socrates, our recall is profoundly flawed. Every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. (This is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.) Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them, they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it.

And this is where the Internet comes in. One of the virtues of transactive memory is that it acts like a fact-checker, helping ensure we don’t forget. In this sense, instinctually wanting to Google information – to not entrust trivia to the brain – is a perfectly healthy 21st century impulse. I don’t think it’s a sign that technology is rotting our cortex – I think it shows that we’re wise enough to outsource a skill we’re not very good at. Because while the web enables all sorts of other biases – it lets us filter news, for instance, to confirm what we already believe – the use of the web as a vessel of transactive memory is mostly virtuous. We save hard drive space for what matters, while at the same time improving the accuracy of recall.

Neuroscience And Online Learning

The average number of Google searches per day has grown from 9,800 in 1998 to over 4.7 trillion today. This may not be surprising, since we’ve all come to appreciate the thrill of instant information. But while it’s certainly convenient to have the sum of all knowledge at our fingertips, studies show that the “Google effect” is changing the way we think. Neuroimaging of frequent Internet users shows twice as much activity in the short term memory as sporadic users during online tasks. Basically, our brain is learning to disregard information found online, and this connection becomes stronger every time we experience it. So the more we use Google, the less likely we are to retain what we see. Our brains use information stored in the long-term memory to facilitate critical thinking. We need these unique memories to understand and interact with the world around us. If we rely on Google to store our knowledge, we may be losing an important part of our identity.

Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together

How does the human memory work? Twenty years ago you might have found your answer in a book, or by asking a friend. But today, you’ll Google it. There were 3.5 million searches in 1998, now, there are 4.7 trillion search queries everyday. When something changes our lifestyle so monumentally, you can bet it’s changing us as well. Google has become our external hard drive. In a recent experiment, college students remembered less information when they thought they could easily access it later. We used to rely on friends and family members for this method of memory outsourcing, remembering who knew what rather than the information itself. But now, Google is the friend with all of the expertise. If the sum of all knowledge is constantly available in our pockets, is it any wonder that we’ve stopped bothering to keep it in our heads?

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” And the same goes for those that fire apart. Neuroimaging of frequent Internet users shows twice as much activity in the prefrontal cortex as sporadic users. This part of the brain is reserved for short-term memory and quick decision-making. Essentially, our brains recognize that most of the flood of online information is trivial, and doesn’t deserve our full attention. The problem is, the brain does what we train it to do. And every time we open a browser, we prepare for skimming instead of learning. So even if we really want to remember something from Google, our brains are predisposed to forget. Everything we ever wanted to know is available to us, and we have conditioned ourselves to ignore it.

What do we actually know? If the goal is to forge a creative mind through critical thinking, our Google amnesia may be problematic. The information and experience that gets encoded into our long-term memory is the basis of our unique intelligence. Still, we may be able to mitigate the impact to our long-term memory by adapting our response to this new reality. After all, we can’t stop the sea change of the information age. In recent years, American schools have focused less on fact memorization and more on teaching students how to make innovative connections between the curriculum and real life. This way, it’s less about the knowledge you have, and more about how you use the information at hand.

How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains

The Internet is no doubt changing modern society. It has profoundly altered how we gather information, consume news, carry out war, and create and foster social bonds. But is it altering our brains? A growing number of scientists think so, and studies are providing data to show it. What remains to be seen is whether the changes are good or bad, and whether the brain is, as one neuroscientist believes, undergoing unprecedented evolution. Texting and instant messaging, social networking sites and the Internet in general can certainly be said to distract people from other tasks. But what researchers are worrying more about are the plastic brains of teens and young adults who are now growing up with all this, the "digital natives" as they're being called.

There is a fear that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment," said Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, in The Daily Mail today. "I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf."

Evolution Of A New Human Brain?

Meanwhile, much more research needs to be done to determine if social networking sites, and the Internet in general, are good or bad for children and teens, or neither. Studies going back to the late 1990s have flip-flopped on this as often as new social networking sites pop up. For now, there are only hints and indications that all this change may indeed lead to young brains that work differently than those of previous generations. But evidence is indeed mounting. "We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia," says Sue Palmer, author of "Toxic Childhood" (Orion, 2007). "I'm not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people."


Carr, N. (2011) The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company. Citation in text: Carr, 2011
Emmerson, R. W. The Complete Works. Retrieved from
Greenfield, B. (2009). Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist. Retrieved from:
Palmer, S. (2010) Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It. Orion Books. Citation in text: Palmer, 2010
Sparrow, Liu, Wegner (2011). Google Effects on Memory. Retrieved from:


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2. How Human Memory Works (HowStuffWorks):
3. The Brain From Top To Bottom (McGill University):
4. First-time Internet Use Alters Activity in Older Brains:


1. “The Universe Within” -
2. “The 3-Pound Universe” -
3. “The Britannica Guide to the Brain” -
4. “Your Brain: The Missing Manual” -
5. "Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It" -
6. "Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind" -


1. How Does Your Memory Work (BBC TV):
2. Google Effects On Memory PBS News Interview With Dr. Betsy Sparrow:
3. Transactive Memory Implications with Betsy Sparrow: