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Blog post

Is the internet making us stupid?

It’s definitely rewiring our brain to remember less
January 15, 2019
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By Younes Medkour

Is the internet making us stupid?

While I was staring at my bookshelves, I realized I couldn’t remember much about my books. I knew their titles, the looks of their cover pages, a few facts about them and maybe the name of their author. But for the most part, I had forgotten everything.

In a rush, I pulled out an article from one of my binders full of research papers to see if I could remember anything about it, but I had no luck. How I felt at the time was bad enough to give any graduate student an anxiety attack. Fortunately, while re-reading the paper, I had a strange sense of already knowing its content. The information was slowly coming back to me. 

The curse of reading and forgetting

Like every paranoid person, I jumped on the know-it-all Google, to diagnose myself. Apparently, I had the “curse of reading and forgetting.” While reading a piece, everything seems to be memorized as you go through it. Yet, a few days later, if you try to remember what the piece was about, you would probably fail.

Neuropsychologists use the concept of the forgetting curve to describe how fast we tend to forget things. This curve is steepest during the first 24 hours following a learning experience. 

Presumably, memory has always been like this. To learn something such as a concept or a fact, information is first stored in what is called the working memory. This information is then consolidated into long-term memory which will stick for days or even years. To succeed, this process requires spaced, repeated learning of the information to be stored and proper sleep. I discuss this in my Sleep or Fail blog post.

Unfortunately, I believe our aptitude to recall memories has worsened since the appearance of the internet. Our brain doesn’t value the ability to spontaneously pull out information anymore. Why would it anyway, when there’s the know-it-all Google to provide you with the answers you need?

Why is this happening? 

It is happening because our way of consuming information has changed since the pre-internet era. Today, most of the data we consume comes from the net and not from print — 2.5 quintillions (one followed by 18 zeros) bytes of data is created every day. And this number is growing exponentially.

To put this into perspective, 2.5 quintillion bytes is the same as 2.5 million hard drives each filled with one terabyte of data. One terabyte can hold roughly 50 million articles of the size of this blog post. Needless to say, 2.5 quintillion bytes is a lot of information. 

Not only that but it has been shown that people are consuming three times as much information each day as they did before the internet. Being exposed to such extensive amounts of fast-flowing information requires us to be efficient in how we store it. And so, the brain has changed its workings.

The rapid flow of data generates a high turnover rate for information that’s stored in our working memory. This turnover rate prevents any consolidation of happening. In other words, we are never keeping information long enough in our attention to form a rich connection in the brain.  

To respond to that, the brain is using the internet as transactive memory, which serves the role of an external storage unit. With this new feature, the brain must only remember where to find the information because it doesn’t have to store it anymore.

The good news is that we are not losing our minds. We are just adapting to a different way of consuming and processing information. That’s probably why I couldn’t remember most of my books. My brain knew that I could access them at any time, so why remember their content?


About the author

Younes-Medkour-profile

Younes Medkour received his Bachelor's degree in Biology from Concordia University. He is now a doctoral candidate studying aging in Dr. Vladimir Titorenko’s laboratory. He co-leads a research project that resulted in the discovery of the most potent anti-aging pharmacological intervention. He is currently working on unveiling the mechanisms by which this extract extends longevity and delays the onset of diseases related to old age, such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. 

 


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