Lackluster Retention of Random Information

I remember one chemistry teacher in high school who said spending time to memorize the entire periodic table was a waste of time. I always did like him.

In a recent New York Times article, Patricia Cohen reports that there is a new line of research looking into the effects of online databases and search engines on our memory. Dr Betsy Sparrow, Daniel Wegner, and Jenny Liu conducted a few memory experiments, revealing that people do not make an effort to retain information when they believe it will be easily retrievable.

Huh. Maybe this explains why I don’t remember Bon Jovi’s birthday or the atomic mass of osmium. The internet is right there, just waiting for me to ask these important questions. (Bon Jovi was born on March 2nd, 1962 and osmium has an atomic mass of 76 atomic mass units. Thank you, Google.)

It’s no doubt that internet databases and search engines are a boon to researchers, students, cheating crossword players. That’s the thing, it’s ok to forget something until you need it–my chemistry teacher knew that in the real world, we could look up an element. But what if you don’t know when you’ll need a bit of information. There are little things like, oh I don’t know, critical thinking, decision making, and problem solving that at least in part depend on your ability to recall bits of knowledge from memory. (In theory, this is one reason why we memorize things in college.) So, how will our 21st century lackluster retention of random information affect these essential mental faculties?

About the author

Ian Park

Ian graduated from Wesleyan University in May 2011 with a degree in Neuroscience and Behavior. In that same year, he was Director of Photography of a senior documentary thesis film at Wesleyan, which won first place. He recently acted as Director of Photography on a Clinique commercial for a competition--it won honorable mentions. He is currently working as a producer/director/editor of video and other digital content in Soho, NY, as well as working on a soon-to-be-released web series, "Postponed."

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