The reflection on the effect that the assiduous use of technology has on the higher cognitive capacities of the human being is not a new event. Already in the 1960s, after the appearance of the first communication tools such as the telephone, television or radio, some experts began to relate the two concepts.

One of the pioneering figures in trying to understand the impact of technology on human beings and society as a whole was Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian professor specializing in communication theory who introduced the concept of “global village” to refer to this phenomenon.

Access to information: benefit or disadvantage?

As is the case today with the main social networks and information search engines on the Internet , the appearance of such information instruments of yesteryear played a very relevant and revolutionary role in society’s access to information, occurring in a faster and more universal manner. Also then, as it could happen in the present time, the first controversies about such phenomenon were born.

Thus, while one part of society seemed to emphasize the benefits and advances that such technological discoveries could imply in the process of transmitting information globally, another collective part expressed the fear that, paradoxically, greater ease of access to information could lead to cultural impoverishment.

Almost two decades after the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves at the same crossroads: such a volume of information can either be linked to the idea of belonging to a more democratic or “better informed” social system or it can be associated with malicious practices through a biased, manipulated or partial dissemination of information .

New technologies in human cognitive functionality

This first debate was the starting point from which other related dilemmas were later developed. A question that has become increasingly relevant in research into this area of knowledge over the years refers to the analysis of the communication medium itself (among others, Internet search engines such as Google) and the implications that its continued use could have on the way in which the functionality of the human intellect is configured .

Based on the idea that the constant use of this type of knowledge tools can modulate, modify and significantly influence the way of perceiving, coding, memorizing and recovering the information received, we could hypothesize how these modifications could end up playing a relevant role in the activity of the higher human intellectual functions , such as decision-making where these lower cognitive processes converge.

From sequential processing to simultaneous processing

The explanation for this hypothesis would be based on a change in the way the human Nervous System receives a certain type of stimulation. In times before the revolution of new technologies, mental processes such as those indicated used to follow each other in the mind in a sequential and linear way, since the reception of information lacked the immediacy it has today.

However, after the massive rise of the Internet (in combination with other existing media) , information has become available quickly and simultaneously through a variety of sources; it is now common practice to have different tabs open in the PC browser, while listening to the news on the TV and attending to mobile phone notifications.

All this leads to the usual internalisation of being exposed to a “constant bombardment” of information, the final consequence of which seems to be a reduction in the capacity to analyse each set of data received individually and in depth. By reducing the time dedicated to reflecting on and evaluating each new piece of information received , if this is maintained sufficiently over time, there is a pernicious interference in the critical capacity itself, in the elaboration of a criterion based on the conclusions themselves, and in short, in the effective decision making process.

To this phenomenon must be added the consideration of the discrepancy between the unlimited data storage capacity that technological tools present and the limited capacity intrinsic to human memory . The former causes an interference in the latter by an information overload effect. This consequence seems to point to the origin of the problems that are so common in relation to the attention difficulties that many children, young people and adults present at present. Surfing the Internet implies intensive multi-tasking processes in a sustained manner over time.

Such an abrupt change from one micro-task to another prevents sustained attentional capacity from developing competently, as it is constantly being disrupted. Despite this great disadvantage, this type of operation presents a secondary gain that makes it difficult for the individual to reject or ignore technology: blocking alerts, notifications and other warnings and information from the Internet, social networks, etc., would imply for the subject a feeling of social isolation that is difficult to accept.

The Google Effect

In 2011, the Sparrow, Liu and Wegner team published a paper that explained the effects of using the Internet search engine Google in memory, the so-called “Google effect”, and the consequences that having the information available immediately could have on cognitive processes. The conclusions showed that easy access to an Internet search engine causes a reduction in the mental effort that the human brain has to put into storing and coding the data obtained.

Thus, the Internet has become a kind of external hard disk attached and without limits to the memory itself which has an advantage over the latter, as indicated above.

More specifically, one of the various experiments that served as a basis for the conclusions drawn by Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) compared the level of recall of three groups of students who had been asked to read some information in some leisure magazines and to try to retain it in their memory.

A first group was guaranteed to be able to consult the information stored later in a file on an accessible PC. A second group was told that the information would be deleted once it was stored. The last group was told that they would be able to access the information but in a hard to find file on the PC .

The results showed that the subjects who were able to consult the data easily afterwards (group 1) showed very low levels of effort to remember the data. The test subjects who remembered the most data were the individuals who were told that the data would be deleted once they were memorized (group 2). The third group was on average in terms of the amount of information retained in the memory. In addition, another surprising finding for the research team was to verify the high capacity of the experimental subjects to remember how to access the information stored in the PC , which had not been retained in the memory itself.

Transactional memory

One of the authors of the research, Wegner, in the 1980s proposed the concept of transactional memory , a concept that aims to define “unconcern” at a mental level for the retention of data that another person already possesses. That is to say, it would be equivalent to the tendency to save cognitive efforts by delegating a certain volume of data to an external figure with the purpose of being more efficient in the resolution of problems and in decision making.

This phenomenon has been a fundamental element that has allowed the development and cognitive-intellectual specialization of the human species. This fact implicitly entails some pros and cons: the fact of specializing in more specific knowledge areas implicitly entails the quantitative loss in the volume of general knowledge that an individual has, although, on the other hand, this has allowed him/her a qualitative increase in efficiency when performing a specific task .

Another key point to reflect upon in relation to the transactional memory construct is precisely to assess the difference between delegating a certain memory capacity to another person (a natural living being) and doing so in an artificial entity such as the Internet, since artificial memory has very different characteristics from biological and personal memory. In the computerized memory the information arrives, is stored in its entirety and immediately and is retrieved in the same way, just as it was stored in the origin. In contrast, human memory is subject to processes of reconstruction and reworking of memory.

This is due to the relevant influence that personal experiences have on the form and content of one’s memories. Thus, several scientific studies have shown that when a memory is retrieved from the long-term memory store, new neuronal connections are established that were not present at the time the experience occurred and were archived in the mind: the brain that remembers (information retrieval) is not the same as the one that generated the memory in the past (information archiving).

By way of conclusion

Despite the fact that neuroscience has not yet delimited exactly whether new technologies are modifying our brain , it has been possible to conclude clearly that the brain of a reading person is significantly different from that of an illiterate person, for example. This has been possible since reading and writing appeared some 6000 years ago, a time period sufficiently long to assess such anatomical differences in depth. In order to evaluate the impact of new technologies on our brain, it would be necessary to wait a little longer.

What does seem to be true is that these types of information tools have both gains and losses for general cognitive ability. In terms of multi-tasking performance, location, information classification, perception and imagination, and visuospatial skills, one can speak of gains.

Furthermore, new technologies can be very useful in the research on pathologies associated with memory . As regards losses, we mainly find the capacity for focused and sustained attention or argued or critical and reflective thinking.

Bibliographic references:

  • Garcia, E. (2018). We are our memory. To remember and to forget. Ed: Bonalletra Alcompas S.L.: Spain.
  • McLuhan, M. (2001). Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. Routledge: New York.
  • Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 476-478.
  • Wegner, D.M. (1986). Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In B. Mullen and G.R. Goethals (eds.): Theories of group behavior (185-208). New York: Springer-Verlag.