Can you write down at least five phone numbers of people who are important in your life? If you can’t, don’t worry – you’re with the majority. After all, why go out of your way to memorise phone numbers when you can simply scroll through your mobile phone for this information?

It seems that, as our technology gets better at storing and providing the data we need, we’re getting worse.

This kind of  ‘outsourcing’ of memory is nothing new. In the past, if we didn’t know how to bake a cake, for example, or couldn’t name the capital of India, the natural next step would be to ask a friend or family member – and hope that they had the answer.

But these days, we know there’s a resource that will have the answer: Google. This is great, because it puts the information we need at our fingertips. But it also means we lose some of the motivation to learn facts for ourselves.

Making memories

When you absorb information, it takes a journey straight to your short-term memory, which only holds it for roughly 60 milliseconds. At this point, the information either goes to your long-term memory or it’s forgotten.

So how do we decide what to keep? Often, whether you are aware of it or not, it’s your own decision. You weigh up whether the information is significant enough to place in your long-term memory.

It’s this conversion from short-term to long-term memory that’s been affected by the internet age. As our short-term memory is exposed to a massive amount of information each day, it can become overwhelmed and incapable of storing it all. We’ve also taught ourselves to trivialise the information we view online, making it instantly less memorable.

Information overload

We’ve all done it. You go online to find out the age of your favourite author and end up trawling through their entire life story. This leads to what is called ‘cognitive overload’. Of course, the cause of your distraction doesn’t even need to be linked to what you were looking at originally. With a few clicks, it’s all too easy to jump from looking up your favourite author’s age, to checking your emails, to reading the news online.

Using the web isn’t like reading a book. It’s an interactive process that involves a huge amount of quick decision-making to find out what you want to know. All of this browsing can certainly lead to cognitive overload, and when the amount of information arriving into our short-term memory surpasses our capacity to store it, we have problems retaining it in our long-term memory.

A new form of memory

When we need an answer to a question, we’ve become conditioned not to remember the information or rack our brains trying to work out the answer. Instead, we simply remember how to find the answer via a search engine. So as we browse social media or the news online, our brains are ready to glance over information, not to actually learn it.

If the result is that we store a smaller proportion of what we read in our minds, could this ultimately affect the way we think? And is it a change for the better or worse? There are certainly benefits to becoming good at spotting what’s worth learning, rather than devoting our efforts to remembering everything we see online. So rather than becoming shallow browsers of data, we are perhaps just learning to sift through that data more efficiently.

One thing is certain. Our relationship with information is changing, and we are adapting to keep up. Fairly soon, the old way of reading and learning could be no more than a distant memory.