Is outboard memory so bad?

The Internet is changing our memory, but perhaps not by weakening it (as some have surmised, most notably Nicholas Carr).

A new study led by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, cited by both Discover Magazine and Silicon Valley Mercury News) suggests that people are just adapting to the availability of the Internet by spending less time memorizing things better retrieved through a Google search.

In a series of four experiments at Columbia and Harvard, Sparrow and her team found that students are more likely to recall a trivial fact if they think it will be erased from the computer -- and forget it if they're assured it will be there.

Similarly, the team proved that people are better at remembering where to find facts, rather than the facts themselves. The students, they found, recalled the names of files where information was stored, rather than the information itself.

In the same way that painters shifted from realistic representations to impressionism when the camera was invented, people may just be optimizing their mental processing for tasks a computer isn't able to do better yet.

Why spend time memorizing thousands of digits of pi when you can look up as many digits as you'd like with one simple Internet search? Chuck Klosterman posed a similar question in sidenote #3 in this Grantland article about the limits of human speed.

We should not overlook the large contingent of long-distance runners who find the whole question of "the fastest man alive" patently ridiculous, simply because humans are all relatively slow (at least compared to most other major mammals). Humans are designed for distance running. Christopher McDougnall, author of the best-selling book Born to Run, actually thinks this debate is borderline sexist. "My bedrock feeling about sprinting is that we only get excited about it because boys are better than girls. Men set the entertainment agenda, so we pick the events that give us an edge over women. As a species, we're awful sprinters. Really bad. The average amputee dog can hold his own against any high school track star. … It takes a really prosperous, secure society to perfect frivolous pursuits.

While this sounds good in principle, I'm not sure that being outdone at the extremes minimizes our appreciation of relative differences further away from the margins. Humans are, of course, most empathetic to the limits of human achievement, so I compare Usain Bolt running a 9.58s 100m dash to my own time in the same, and I compare someone memorizing 67,890 digits of pi to the number I can recall offhand, and I'm suitably impressed.

Related: lmgtfy and The Most Human Human