Research Presentation: Ryan McLaughlin

How Smartphones and the Internet are Affecting the Human Brain

Central Question
Is technology affecting our memories? Is the use of cell phones and the Internet affecting the way we think?

Based on my research, technology, more specifically the use of smartphones and the Internet, is affecting human memory and the way we think.

Keywords: Memory, The Google Effect, Mental Prosthetic


Our memories are changing. I remember memorizing multiplication tables as a child—notice I said memorizing and not learning. I say this because I do not truly believe that memorizing where certain numbers are meant to go on a table can truly be considered learning. In order to completely learn something, you have to understand it. Much of what I did as a child was memorize and regurgitate facts in order to get acceptable grades. Calculators were not that popular when I was a kid. My teacher’s preferred that I learned how to multiply and do long division all by hand. As I got older, calculators eventually did the work that I did on paper to save time. I still remember most of my multiplication tables, but I can no longer spout them off on command. I have to think about it for a minute to make sure I am giving the right answer. The same goes for other subjects I had to memorize when I was younger. At one point, I had to memorize all 50 states and their capitals for a test. I can probably name all 50 states if given some time (give or take 5 states), but I can probably only name a handful of their capitals. With the invention of smartphones and the Internet, there does not seem to be a need to memorize these facts and tidbits anymore. The answer lies at your fingertips—literally. Betsy Sparrow writes, “In a development that would have seemed extraordinary just over a decade ago, many of us have constant access to information” (Sparrow).

Memory and The Human Brain

To some, the human memory seems to be one of those big old file cabinets that you dust off from time to time to try and find whichever file is needed at the that time. But that is not exactly how it works. April Holladay defines the term, “Memory is simply ways we store and recall things we've sensed.” (Holladay). The brain has two locations for memory storage—short-term memory and long-term memory. The storage for short-term memory is pretty small; “it holds about seven independent items at one time, such as "carry" numbers when calculating arithmetic” (Holladay). Long-term memory information can last much longer—up to the entirety of one’s life.

How does information get to the brain? Holladay explains, “Information flows from the outside world through our sight, hearing smelling, tasting and touch sensors” (Holladay). There are three processes to long-term memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval (Holladay). First, the information is encoded. This means that the idea is broken down so it is understood; significance and value is placed on this information. The next step is storage. This is where the information that is trying to be remembered is linked to other memories the brain already has. The last step is retrieval. This is done by, “following some of the pointers that trace the various meaning codes and decoding the stored information to regain meaning” (Holladay).

So what are cell phones and the Internet doing to memory and the human brain? Studies have proven that the using smartphones is affecting the abilities and strength of the human memory. Jim Helms writes, “It has been proven that the use of cellular devices decreases the amount of information that can be remembered” (Helms). There has been research to see what cell phone radiation does to the brain. Claims have been made that cell phones cause cancer and scramble one’s brain. Our society has become really great at embracing new technology, however, we do not always think about the long term effects it may have on us. Helms writes about an experiment where lab rats were exposed to radiation from cell phones for two hours a week for over a year in comparison to a control group that was not exposed to other cell phone radiation aside from the standard that is received by everything on earth. Helms concluded, “The conclusion of the study was that the experimental group showed poorer results on a memory test than the control group” (Helms).

Why is this happening? When I think of radiation, I think of it as a treatment for cancer—as a way of shrinking a tumor. Exposing yourself to more radiation for a technology seems a little crazy when studies show the harmful effects. Helms explains, “Scientists think that the reason for this memory loss is that the cellular radiation damaged nerve cells in the brain” (Helms). Scientists also found damage in other locations of the brain, including the hippocampus—the memory epicenter of the brain. While studies have shown that cell phone radiation literally damages one’s brain, people continue to use them. This study was with cell phone usage for two hours a week for a year. Most people have had their phones for much longer and may talk on it for much longer than two hours a week. There is evidence of damage, but as Kevin Kelly writes, “We are good at trying first, not good at relinquishing” (Kelly 226). Our society has a hard time letting go of the technology that it has become accustomed to. These experiments have only been conducted on animals so far. It will be interesting to see how cell phones are affecting humans in the long run.

It has also been argued that smartphones and the Internet are making us less intelligent as a whole. Attention Deficit Disorder is becoming more and more commonplace. Children have a hard time focusing and now so are adults. Some say that this is because we have no attention span or focus. Katherine Ellison writes that multi-tasking, “has been shown in several studies to increase stress, which can interfere with short-term memory, leading to more mistakes” (Ellison). Making more mistakes can lead to an assumption of carelessness or unintelligence. In Ellison’s article, Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley at the University of California comments, “Especially confusing is that key brain functions, like short-term memory, processing speed, and the capacity to multi-task, decline steadily as we age” (Ellison). It has not yet been clearly stated as to whether it is just age or outside factors that are affecting memory. However, there is clear evidence of damage to the memory center of the brain with the use of cell phones.

The Google Effect

The Google Effect is the idea that Google and other search engines are affecting memory and changing the way that people think. Rob Stein writes, “In a series of experiments, Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues produced evidence that people are more likely to remember things they do not think they can find using a computer and vice versa. In addition, people are better at remembering where to look for information on the Internet than they are remembering the information itself, the studies found” (Stein).

Some argue that it was not Google and other search engines that began changing memories and the way people think. Hebburn says, “Before the development of written languages, people remembered everything of any importance, and passed it on” (Hebburn). Oral tradition was a really big part of the past; it was the way stories and history was remembered. With the invention of the printing press, oral tradition was no longer necessary because people had the means to write those stories down. Hebburn agrees, “Humanity’s dependence on memory has declined constantly since those times, in line with the invention and spread of other record-keeping and information retrieval methods such as writing – that old-fashioned pre-requisite of the internet, and the root cause of any human memory changes that are ascribed to technology” (Hebburn). So while Google and other search engines may not have started this affect on memory, technology has definitely shaped the human mind from the start. Google and other search engines seem to have speeded up the process. So perhaps in terms of evolution, we were supposed to forget.

Mental Prosthetics

Sparrow writes, “The Internet, with its search engines such as Google and databases such as IMDB and the information stored there, has become an external memory source that we can access at any time” (Sparrow). Smartphones and the Internet seem to be turning into a mental prosthetic. The idea of storing information externally on external hard drives or flash drives is not a new concept. Sparrow discusses how this idea was apparent even before the use of computers—through the use of other people for remembering information. Both kinds of external drives help others to remember and store things they might not remember themselves. Is the next step for us some sort of computer chip we put in our brain that helps us remember certain subjects when we need to?

Before I got my first cell phone, I had all my family and friend’s phone numbers memorized. It was like I had a Rolodex in my mind that I could refer to instantaneously. My mom had an actual address book where she wrote down all her numbers. After I got a cell phone, I slowly started to forget those numbers. It was no longer necessary for me to remember them when I had another means to store that information. Today, the only numbers I can remember without having to look them up are my immediate family’s numbers. My cell phone is a mental prosthetic in this way. It remembers for me. As I make new friends or get new phone numbers, I do not even attempt to memorize them anymore. Smartphones have made this concept unnecessary. Hebburn comments, “It stands to reason that by relying on the digital memory of mobile phones, a portion of our top-level memory was re-wired and re-purposed as a result” (Hebburn). Both the actual address book and the contact list in smartphones are our external memories. But by becoming dependent on these external technologies instead of our own memory, we run the risk of misplacing them and losing those things forever. Smartphones are already considered to be an extra limb to some. When the beloved iPhone or Blackberry is left at home, there is a feeling that something or some part of one is missing. It is almost as if the smartphone has become a mental prosthetic of the human body in a way—an item that is readily available for one to access any information you might not remember oneself. A Columbia University experiment showed, “One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will” (Sparrow).

Works Cited

Ellison, Katherine. "Are Smartphones Making Us Dumber?" Forbes. N.p., 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2013. < digital-data-overload-shortening-our-attentions-spans-and-making-us-dumber/>.

Hebburn, Gez. "The ‘Google Effect’ Debunked: Human Memory Changes Did Not Start with Search Engines." Search Engine Journal. N.p., 25 July 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. < the-google-effect- debunked-human-memory-changes/31264/>.

Helms, Jim. "Cell Phones Are Affecting Memory." Examiner. The Examiner, 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. < affecting-memory>.

Holladay, April. "How Does Human Memory Work?" USA Today. USA Today, 15 Mar. 2007. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. < memory-first_N.htm>.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Sparrow, Betsy, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner. "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips." Science Mag. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 14 July 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2013. <>.

Stein, Rob. "Google, Yahoo and Other Search Engines Affecting Memory, Study Says. "The Washington Post. The Washinton Post, 14 July 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. < other-search-engines-affecting-memory-study- says/2011/07/14/gIQAuSabEI_blog.html>.