Google As Sherlock Holmes's Filing System
Maria Konnikova is the New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Game (Viking/Penguin 2016) and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013). She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, where she writes a regular column with a focus on psychology and culture, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, California Sunday, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, WIRED, and The Smithsonian, among numerous other publications. Maria is a recipient of the 2015 Harvard Medical School Media Fellowship, and is a Schachter Writing Fellow at Columbia University's Motivation Science Center. She formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched" column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice" for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.
Maria Konnikova: So last year a fascinating study came out in the Journal of Science from a team led by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia. And in this study, the scientists showed that people who used Google and who thought that they would be able to access information on a computer later on didn't remember it as well as the people who didn’t think they would have access to it. So you have one kind of key variable: Do you think you’ll be able to use your computer later on to find this information? If the answer is no, you’re going to remember it. If the answer is yes, you're not going to remember it, but you will remember where to find it. So you'll remember where it was stored; you’ll member what the folder was; you’ll remember how to access it on the computer. So it's not that you're not remembering anything; it’s that you’re remembering a very different thing. Do you use your memory to store the actual piece of information? Do you use it to store the retrieval process?
So I take a few things from this. Thing one, technology can be very bad for our memory if we let it be bad for it. So if we always rely on it and if we have this attitude of, oh, I don’t need to remember this because I’ll always be able to look it up, you won’t remember it. And then you won’t have that knowledge in your head and then you won’t have anything in your attic to play with; you won’t have that knowledge base. You won’t be able to be imaginative like Holmes. You won’t be able to reach those conclusions because your attic will be pretty bare. But we can also use it to enhance our memory by saying, okay, I know that there are these great technological benefits. Why don't I use that to create this virtual storage space for myself? So Holmes does this, too. Holmes has files that he accesses and he says, "Watson, you know, look up my file for this case. Look up my file for this case." So he remembers that he has the file. He remembers that there was a case. He doesn’t necessarily remember all of these details.
So you can think of Google as this vastly expanded Holmesian filing system. So you can use it for exactly that. What are the things that I want to remember and that I want to be able to access later on and focus on remembering how to access them? And then keep your mind space for those things that you think will be important for you to know at any point. So the exercise that I like to say for myself is, if I were on a desert island with no power, or I don’t even have to go to a desert island... in Hurricane Sandy, I had no power, no Internet, no cell phone service. Nothing. So if Hurricane Sandy strikes again, and I don’t have anything, do I have everything that I need immediately in my head? What are those things that I really can’t rely on a computer for?
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What are the things that I want to remember and that I want to be able to access later on and focus on remembering how to access them? And then keep your mind space for those things that you think will be important for you to know at any point.
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