The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia: How We Use Machines to Remember

The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia


The Google effect and digital amnesia both represent our tendency to forget information that can be easily found online or stored digitally. The following article will explain these effects, and how you can use your understanding of them to strategically choose when to remember things, and when to forget them.


The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia

The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we know how to find online.

Digital amnesia is our tendency to forget information that we’ve stored on a digital device.

Both of these phenomena are similar, in that we forget, either intentionally or unintentionally, information that is available to us digitally. The main reason for this is that we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.

One study, for example, showed this by examining doctoral dissertations at MIT, and specifically how the way students cite sources changed over the years. The researchers found that once search engines and digital storage became more commonplace, students started relying more on their ability to remember where relevant information appears in scientific literature, rather than on their ability to remember the information itself.

Essentially, this means that we rely on digital devices and the internet as a form of external memory-storage, and as part of our transactive memory. This type of memory is frequently used in groups and relationships, and involves individuals in a group relying on one another to remember key information in certain areas. It’s beneficial because it allows each person in the group to dedicate less cognitive resources to remembering all the shared information, since they know that someone else in the group has that information stored for them.

Note: that there are some philosophical arguments against the idea that the internet is a part of our transactive memory. These arguments center around the fact that transactive memory is a feature of a distributed cognitive system between individuals, while the internet is only as a tool which is used to access information. However, this distinction isn’t crucial, as long as you understand the overall idea behind these phenomena.


Why understanding these effects is important

There is nothing wrong with intentionally forgetting things that you know your devices can remember for you. We have so many things to remember, that an external memory-storage unit is of great help. Password managers are a good example of this, since they allow us to reliably remember a large number of strong passwords, something that we would otherwise struggle to do effectively.

There are other benefits to strategically forgetting things. Notably, most of us have no way of remembering all the valuable information that we encounter everyday. Because of this, relying on our ability to find information rather than on our ability to store it, frees up cognitive resources necessary for processing of all of this information, which allows us to utilize it more effectively.

However, relying on devices to remember for you can be an issue if you need to remember the information directly. One study, for example, found that while using the internet allows us to quickly discover new information, our ability to recall this information is worse than when we discover it through other sources, such as books. While this isn’t a problem in cases where you just need to know where to find the information, it can be an issue in cases where you need to recall the information directly, such as:

  • Information that you need to have readily available when you don’t have access to digital storage or to a search engine.
  • Information that is crucial to remember since you cannot afford to rely only on a digital backup for some reason.
  • Information that you want to internalize and remember in the long-term.

Therefore, the important thing is to be aware of these phenomena, and to have them under your control. That is, the decision to forget certain pieces of information because you know you can retrieve them digitally, is one that you should be making consciously and selectively.


Summary and conclusions

  • The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we know how to find online.
  • Digital amnesia is our tendency to forget information that we stored on a digital device.
  • These phenomena are attributed to the fact that we often treat digital devices and the internet as a sort of external memory-storage, by making them a part of our transactive memory.
  • The primary reason why we do this is because we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.
  • Relying on digital devices to store information can be beneficial, since it frees up cognitive resources which are necessary for processing new information, and because this form of memory is generally efficient and reliable. However, the choice to do this should be conscious, since it can hinder us in cases where we need to remember key pieces of information directly.


The Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games

The Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games


Research shows that playing video games can be good for you. In the following article you will see:

  • The cognitive benefits associated with playing video games.
  • The long-term implications of these benefits.
  • What research says about the effectiveness of “brain-training games”.
  • How you can take advantage of video games in order to intentionally improve your cognitive performance.


The cognitive benefits of video games

Playing video games can improve your cognitive performance in a wide range of areas:

Overall, this list showcases some of the benefits associated with playing video games. However, it’s important to remember that different types of games offer different benefits. Therefore, each game will help you improve in some areas, which are related to the tasks that you perform in the game, but no single game will help you improve all aspects of your cognitive performance.


Other benefits of playing

In addition to improving your cognitive performance, playing video games offers additional benefits:


Short-term vs. long-term effects

Research shows that some of the benefits of playing video games can last long after you’ve finished playing. One study, for example, showed that letting kids play a cognitive-training game consistently for a month, led to cognitive improvements which were still significant when the kids were tested 3 months after they stopped playing. Furthermore, neurological studies show that playing video games consistently can lead to long-term positive changes in terms of how the brain processes information, and in terms of factors such as neural plasticity.

Overall, the longer you ‘train’ by playing games, the longer the benefits will usually last. However, the relationship between the time spent playing and and the degree of cognitive improvement is complex, so it’s difficult to predict exactly how long the benefits will last in different scenarios.


Brain-training games

There are some commercial games which purport to specifically improve cognitive performance (often referred to as “brain-training games”). The effectiveness of these games is under debate in the scientific community, with some studies showing that they can lead to an improvement in cognitive performance, and with other studies showing that these games do not lead to a significant improvement, especially in comparison with regular video games.

Overall, the evidence regarding the effectiveness of these games suggests that brain-training games help you improve primarily at cognitive tasks that are closely related to the tasks in the game, and less so with other tasks. The biggest issue with this is that brain-training companies often overhype their products, and make false claims regarding how effective their games are.

Based on this, it seems that brain-training games can work in some aspects, to some degree, for some people. Therefore, if you enjoy playing these games, and feel like they are helping you improve in related tasks (beyond those in the game itself), then by all means, keep playing them. Just be wary, and keep your expectations realistic.


Using video games to improve your cognitive performance

As we saw so far, playing video games can help you improve various aspects of your cognitive performance. You will generally get these benefits whether you’re actively trying to or not, so if you want to just keep playing and reaping the rewards, that’s perfectly fine; one of the greatest advantages of video games is that they allow you to improve passively, while having fun.

However, if you want to actively try and get the most out of playing, then you need to keep in mind the 80/20 rule, meaning that in general, you should expect 80% of the benefits from playing video games to come from 20% of the play time. Therefore, if you’re playing with the goal of improving your cognitive performance, you should invest your time wisely, and remember that playing past a certain point will get you diminishing returns on your efforts. To circumvent this, you can diversify the type of games that you play, which will also help you improve different cognitive abilities.


Testing whether games help you improve

If you want to test whether video games are actually improving your abilities, you can try to do this by assessing your performance on tasks which require similar skills to those in the game. For example, lets say you want to measure whether playing a new action game will improve your reaction time. Before you start playing for the first time, take a few online tests of reaction time, and record your performance on each of them. Then, after playing the game for some time, retake these tests, and compare your performance now to what you got when you took the baseline measurements.

Try to keep the testing conditions as similar as possible between the trials, in terms of the device you take them on, the time of the day, etc. This will make your experiment more reliable, by allowing you to control for some variables which might affect the results.

However, keep in mind that it’s difficult to know for sure whether you’ve improved, since there are other factors which might also affect the results, such as the fact that you’ve already taken these tests before. In addition, if you play video games regularly, it’s possible that gaming already improved your cognitive abilities, and that playing new games is mostly keeping you at a high-but-consistent level of performance.

Overall, self-experimentation can be an interesting way to measure whether playing video games is helping you improve your cognitive abilities. Just keep in mind that this form of experimentation has some limitations, so the results might not always be clear-cut.


Summary and conclusions

  • Research shows that playing video games improves various cognitive abilities, such as reaction time, mental flexibility, spatial memory, attentional capacity, and visual processing.
  • In addition, playing video games has emotional and social benefits, such as reducing stress levels, increasing self esteem, and encouraging cooperative behavior.
  • The benefits of playing video games can often continue to last in the long-term, even after you’ve stopped playing the game.
  • Brain-training games, which are designed specifically for to improve cognitive performance, appear to be beneficial in some cases. However, they are often overhyped by the companies that sell them, and their benefits are sometimes no greater than those associated with playing regular video games.
  • One of the greatest advantages of playing video games is that they allow you to improve passively, while having fun. However, if you want to actively try and get the most from playing, try to diversify the types of games that you play, and remember that past a certain point of playing, you will get diminishing returns on your efforts.


The ‘Appeal to Nature’ Fallacy: Why Natural Isn’t Always Better

The ‘Appeal to Nature’ Fallacy


An appeal to nature is an argument that claims that something is either good because it is considered ‘natural’, or bad because it is considered ‘unnatural’.

This kind of fallacious thinking frequently plays a role in debates on various topics, so it is important to understand it. The following article will explain how this fallacy works, highlight the flaws in this type of reasoning, and show you how to successfully counter people who use appeal to nature arguments to support their stance.


Understanding appeal to nature arguments

This type of argument can be used to demonstrate support for something, by arguing that:

X is natural (and natural is good), so therefore X is good.

For example:

Herbal medicine is natural, so it is good for you.

Conversely, it can also be used to argue against something, by stating that:

Y is unnatural (and unnatural is bad), so therefore Y is bad.

For example:

Antibiotics are unnatural, so they are bad for you.

As you can see, there are some gaping holes in this reasoning. This is because the appeal to nature represents an informal logical fallacy, which means that the content of the argument fails to support its proposed conclusion. In the next section, we will see the issues which are inherent in this type of argument, and understand how you can focus on them in order to counter appeals to nature.


Countering appeal to nature arguments

There are two main issues that you can focus on when countering appeal to nature arguments. These are:

  • The difficulty of defining what ‘natural’ means.
  • The fact that ‘natural’ isn’t always good.

You should generally pick one flaw and focus on that. If necessary, you can expand later on, and also attack the other flaw in the opponent’s argument.


‘Natural’ is hard to define

There is no clear way to classify something as ‘natural’, and people are often incorrect about believing that something is natural, even by their own standards. For example, people often use generic terms like “chemicals” to denote that something is unnatural (and therefore bad). However, this distinction is meaningless, since it is difficult to define what “chemical” means exactly, and most people who use this term won’t be able to do so if you ask them. Furthermore, there are plenty of “chemicals” which are naturally occurring, such as ammonia, and which these people often won’t perceive as ‘natural’ under their own definition.

Therefore, one way in which you can counter these arguments, is by asking your opponent to explain what they mean by ‘natural’. Then, you can give examples for things that will be classified as natural under their definition, but which contradict the point that they are trying to make about something being natural.

Another thing you can do is point out the fact that some things which people assume are unnatural are actually more natural than they think. Antibiotics, for example, were first derived from molds, and today plants still serve as a source for many antimicrobial drugs.

Finally, you can also point out the fact that the definition of what is ‘natural’ also changes over time. This is especially helpful when the argument revolves around social conventions, such as the acceptability of same-sex marriage. You can do this by juxtaposing your opponent’s current beliefs against older societal beliefs, such as the idea that it is unnatural for members of two different races to marry. By doing this, you are demonstrating the problem with the idea of defining certain social practices as ‘natural’ or as ‘unnatural’, while highlighting the bigotry in your opponent’s argument.


‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’

You can also point out the fact that just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean that it’s good, and that just because something is unnatural, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. The best way to do this is by using specific counterexamples, as you can see in the following cases:

  • Cyanide is also natural (it can be found in cherry, apple, and peach pits), so natural clearly isn’t always good for you.”
  • “Cars and planes are also unnatural, so does that mean we should never use them again, and just stick to walking?”
  • Steve Jobs also relied on ‘natural’ medicine to treat his cancer, and it likely cost him his life.”


Accounting for the backfire effect

One thing that you need to keep in mind when arguing against people who use appeals to nature is the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that sometimes causes people to cling more strongly to their beliefs when they are presented with information that contradicts them.

Because of this effect, when you point out the flaws in an appeal to nature argument, people may cling to their fallacious reasoning even more strongly. To mitigate this effect, you should avoid being too confrontational. This means that if you actually want to change the other person’s mind, the best course of action is to help them see the gap in their logic themselves, by introducing your counterarguments slowly, and letting them understand the issue with their original stance.

For example, if you want to point out that just because something is natural that doesn’t mean that it’s good, you can help the other person reach that conclusion themself, by presenting them with relevant information, rather than by stating this directly. If someone says that a certain herbal medication is safe because it’s plant-based and therefore ‘natural’, your first instinct might be to say something like:

Well, cyanide is plant-based and natural too, so I guess natural doesn’t always mean that it’s safe.

However, if your goal is to get them to change their mind, you can benefit more from saying:

I understand where you’re coming from, but I still think you need to make sure that it’s been tested and shown to be safe. I read about some cases where simple herbal teas caused pretty severe medical complications, and apparently one of the issues is that these teas are often unregulated, so manufacturers aren’t required to list their potential side effects on the package, unlike with regular medication.

Again, your approach depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by discussing the topic. Specifically, ask yourself whether you just want to point out that the other person is wrong (which is perfectly fine in some situations), or whether you want them to truly understand and internalize the problem with their reasoning.


Using appeal to nature arguments yourself

First of all, consider the fact that you might be using this type of reasoning yourself, unintentionally. If so, try to be more critical of your thought process in areas where this might be the case. Essentially, if your only argument in favor or against something is that it is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’, try to question your own reasoning, by using the techniques that we saw above. This will allow you to look at things in a more rational way, and to make better, more-informed decisions.

As with any other type of fallacious arguments, you can use appeal to nature arguments intentionally in debates. Since a smart opponent will want to counter your argument by using the techniques we saw earlier, you need to be ready to defend your stance, by explaining why X is natural/unnatural, and why that’s good/bad. Since your argument has no logical basis, it will probably be necessary to distort either the opponent’s claims or your own claims, in order to make them easier to attack/defend. You can generally do this by using a straw man argument, in conjunction with the appeal to nature type of reasoning.

However, remember that using this argument means that your stance is based on fallacious reasoning, which in this case is relatively easy to notice. This makes your stance difficult to defend, and can reflect badly on you. Therefore, use this type of argument only if you’re sure that it’s appropriate in your situation.


Summary and conclusions

  • An ‘appeal to nature’ is a logically-fallacious argument, which involves claiming that something is either good because it’s considered ‘natural’, or bad because it’s considered ‘unnatural’.
  • This type of argument has two main flaws in reasoning, which you can focus on to counter people who use it.
  • The first flaw in this reasoning is that it’s difficult to classify something as ‘natural’, and people are often wrong about it even by their own standards. You can point this out by asking them to define what is ‘natural’, and by giving examples for things which under their definition are natural, but which they clearly wouldn’t think of as such.
  • The second flaw in this reasoning is that just because something is ‘natural’, it doesn’t mean that it’s good, and just because something is ‘unnatural’, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. You can point this out by giving specific counterexamples.
  • When you point out the flaws in this logic, your opponent might experience the backfire effect, which will causes them to support their original stance more strongly in the face of evidence that they’re wrong. To avoid this, you can point out the flaws in their reasoning in an indirect, non-confrontational manner, which will help them come to the right conclusions by themself.