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Is The Internet Destroying Our Memories?

Author: Brander Sattler

From: East Meadow, NY, USA

Can you name the most important people in your life? If you can, that is great! Now, can you tell me their email addresses? You probably cannot. Why should you be able to when the information is readily available with access to a cell phone or computer that has internet connection. Why is this?

How Are Memories Formed?

In order to understand how the internet is contributing to memory loss, you must understand how memories are formed in the first place. Do you remember the five senses that you probably learned in primary school? They are sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Using these five senses, you are able to take in sensory information from the environment around you. Once this sensory information reaches our brain, it enters a stage called the working memory. In order for this piece of sensory information to become a memory, it must enter the working memory. What determines whether this piece of information enters the working memory? Sometimes you decide to consciously let it be stored in your long-term memory through a deliberate attempt to memorize the information. Other times, it is unconsciously forgotten through breaks in your attention. These two reasons are the basis behind why the internet negatively affects our memories.

Information Overload

Do you ever go on an internet frenzy whenever you open your phone or your computer? Do you look up just one fact and end up scrolling through social media, reading random articles, or falling for clickbait YouTube videos? If you do, you are not alone. However, how is this affecting how you process all of this information that was thrown at your face? The answer: you often do not. The information dump that you got through on the internet means that you experience cognitive overload and cannot form long-term memories. Nicholas Carr, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Harvard University graduate, states that the internet blurs our focus, hampering our ability to learn and understand information. As stated before, breaks in your attention result in a lack of memory formation, which is exactly what occurs when you experience information overload on the internet.

Readily Available Information

Whenever your teacher says that your upcoming test will be open-note, are you going to study as hard as you would have if you were not allowed to consult your notes? Chances are you would not. Why would you try to memorize the information when it is readily available to you? That is the exact same attitude you have with the internet. A study from Yale University shows that the Internet causes people to overestimate the amount of information we actually know. The participants in the Yale study that had access to the internet tended to misattribute information they actually knew versus information that was readily available to them on the internet. This misattribution is indicative of another problem: people are not absorbing as much information because it is readily available to them. Tracy Packiam Alloway, an independent psychologist at the U.K. Center for Memory and Learning in Lifespan, states that in a study in which participants were told to memorize information in folders, participants that were told that they can look back at the folders were less likely to memorize the information. As stated in the second paragraph, people can consciously decide whether to form long-term memories, and having information readily available to you causes people to opt not to memorize as much information.

How Internet Can Improve Memory

Despite the negative effects that the internet has on our memory, there are thankfully ways that it can be beneficial. Regarding Alloway’s study discussed previously, the people who were told they can look back at the folder often remembered the color of the folder that contained specific information. This result illustrates that the internet and social media allows you to learn where and how to find information. In addition, the internet and social media allows you to filter out relevant information from irrelevant information. Also, knowing that random information is readily available frees up brain space, allowing more important information to be stored and processed, as described by Benjamin Storm, PhD, in his research

Although the ever-changing world can seem like a scary place compared to what previous generations considered their norm, evidence has shown that there are positive changes associated with improving technology that outweigh the drawbacks. Embrace technological changes instead of resisting them.


Author: Branden Sattler

Branden is a senior at East Meadow High School. He has a passion for psychology and wants to understand how different aspects of life affect a person’s emotional well-being.

  1. Cariola, R. (2016, August 18). How the internet affects memory: For better or worse? Rewire Me.

  2. Carr, N. (2010, May 24). Author Nicholas CARR: The WEB Shatters Focus, rewires brains. Wired.

  3. Chayka, K. (2015, December 16). What does the internet do to our memories? Intelligencer.

  4. Cox, L. K. (2017, February 1). Why your memory sucks: The science of remembering in the internet age. HubSpot Blog.

  5. Storm, B. C., & Stone, S. M. (2014). Saving-enhanced memory. Psychological Science, 26(2), 182–188.

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