The Google Effect
We live in a world where trillions of bytes of information are accessible for instantaneous lookup at our fingertips. Want to know the scientific name for hippopotamuses? Just look it up. And why bother trying to remember it when you can rely on a Google search to produce the answer on demand? The "Google Effect" (a.k.a digital amnesia) refers to our tendency to forget information that is readily available through search engines.
The phenomenon is deemed to be part of a broader psychological concept: trans-active memory. In 1986, psychologist Daniel Wegner coined this term to describe the tendency of groups to develop a “shared memory,” where individuals split up the responsibility of remembering information in different knowledge areas. Under this model, individuals in the group only need to remember their delegated subset of information and knowledge of who knows what. Our reliance on search engines can be viewed as a form of transactive memory, where the world’s knowledge is collectively stored in data centers instead of own memories. Instead of remembering everything we read online, we only need to remember where and how we can access it. A 2011 study (Sparrow, et. al.) studied this effect formally. In one of their experiments, participants were asked to read trivia facts and type them into a computer; half were told that the computer would save the information, while the other half were informed they would be erased. When tasked with writing down the facts that they remembered, the group that expected the information to be erased had better recall.
In a variation of the experiment, participants were told that each fact would be saved into a particular folder on the computer. After reading and typing the information, they were first asked to write down as many statements as they could remember. Next, they were presented with each fact and asked which folder it was saved to. Comparing the results, participants tended to remember where the fact had been saved better than the fact itself. Their results suggested that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information. However, they instead had enhanced recall of where to access such information. So, what is responsible for these effects?
An fMRI study (Dong & Potenza, 2016) sought to compare brain imaging of participants during a fact recollection task. After an initial round of testing, the experimental control group was given an additional unrelated internet search task before before being re-tested. There wasn’t a significant difference in task performance between groups and no difference in pre- and post-test brain activity in the control group. However, the internet search trained group showed decreased brain activation of the region associated with declarative, long-term memory (middle temporal gyrus of the ventral stream). On the other hand, a subsequent imaging study (Dong, Li, & Potenza, 2017) found that short term training in internet searching improved white matter connectivity in the region associated with spatial working memory (right superior longitudinal fasciculus, parietal lobe).
These findings corroborate the behavioral observations in the previous section, indicating that our everyday use of search engines may actually be altering the way our brains function. So, what does this mean for our cognitive abilities in a society with an ever-increasing reliance on technology?
The studies above produce interesting results, however, there have been concerns in the scientific community about the replicability of the Google Effect (Schooler & Storm, 2021). A follow-up study (Schooler & Storm, 2021) failed to reproduce Sparrow & Liu’s results without making adjustments to their protocol. An article by McGill University’s Office for Science and Society further proposes that the effect has been exaggerated due to conflict of interest, asserting that the term “digital amnesia” originated from a cybersecurity firm selling antivirus software.
While the effects that technology have on cognitive ability are still uncertain, these findings lead us to ponder the consequences of our increasing reliance on other modern tools. For one, several studies have already demonstrated that use of GPS guidance reduces spatial learning when compared to the use of paper maps (Ben-Elia, 2021). More recently, ChatGPT’s abilities such as summarizing information, composing essays, and solving puzzles raises questions about how our ability to learn and think critically may be impacted.
Dong, Guangheng, and Marc N Potenza. “Short-term Internet-search practicing modulates brain activity during recollection.” Neuroscience vol. 335 (2016): 82-90.
Dong, Guangheng et al. “Short-Term Internet-Search Training Is Associated with Increased Fractional Anisotropy in the Superior Longitudinal Fasciculus in the Parietal Lobe.” Frontiers in neuroscience vol. 11 372. 29 Jun. 2017, doi:10.3389/fnins.2017.00372
Gonzalez-Franco, Mar. “How GPS Weakens Memory-and What We Can Do about It.” Scientific American, 7 May 2021,
Jarry, Jonathan. “Digital Amnesia Has Been Exaggerated.” Office for Science and Society, 31 Mar. 2023,
Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776–778.
Wegner, D. M., Giuliano, T., & Hertel, P. (1985). Cognitive interdependence in close relationships. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and incompatible relationships (pp. 253-276). New York: Springer-Verlag.