Can't Remember Anything? Blame Google and Your Map App

I recently returned from one of those glorious, soul-nourishing visits with friends at a rustic Maine lake retreat. There were 10 of us, including a potter, baker, furniture maker, history professor, math genius and a cat named Smitty. I'm guessing that our free-ranging dinner conversation was typical of the sort you'd hear among such people in similar settings: Many salient and non-valid points were made on various topics of local and global interest, friendly disagreements erupted and, almost always, someone (usually me) ended up consulting Google to check the "facts." A quick scan of my phone's search history indicates that among the points that were thus verified: Einstein was 26 when he published the theory of relativity; UC Berkeley offers health insurance to its graduate students; bonded leather is not really leather; Comcast is a very hated company; and the language spoken on the Frisian Islands off the Dutch coast is the foreign dialect just about closest to English.

It's been two days since my trip to Maine. I like to think I have a fairly decent memory. Yet, before I checked my search results in order to write this post, I would not have been able to recall Einstein's age when he arrived at E=MC2, nor any details of Berkeley's insurance policy. In fact, most of the factoids that were part of our dinner conversation were probably wiped from my memory by the next morning. It would be easy to attribute such lapses to the frequent clinking of wine glasses during dinner or the profound lack of intersection between the Frisian language, etc. and my daily life. But I suspect something more noteworthy and pervasive is afoot. Though I have no data points (or Wikipedia entry) to prove it, I suggest that this tendency to quickly forget a burning question once it has been answered may be, if not a post-Internet phenomenon, then one that has been exacerbated by the incredible speed with which we can now solve mysteries. When it comes to memory, I suspect that time and effort may matter. If you can satisfy an intellectual itch quickly, perhaps you are less likely to remember that you ever had it.

Just before my Maine vacation I spoke at a workshop where we discussed the work of Bluma Ziegernik, a renowned Russian psychologist of the early-ish 20th century and discoverer of a psychological phenomenon fittingly called the Ziegernik Effect. Like many of her fellow psychology students in 1920s Vienna, Ziegernik spent a good deal of time in bustling coffeehouses. Her "aha!" moment began with the observation that the Viennese waiters seemed to have remarkable powers of recall. Not ones for keeping a pencil tucked behind the ear, they committed their customers' orders to memory. If stopped on their way to the kitchen, they could probably recite with accurate detail which strudel Lady X at table Y preferred and how Gentleman Z took his coffee. And yet, if asked the very same questions after delivering these treats, they would draw a blank. Once they no longer needed to remember the orders, they quickly forgot them. Thus we have the Ziegernik Effect, which states that we have far more trenchant memories for uncompleted tasks than for finished business. An unanswered question gnaws at us, and this very uncertainty and lack of resolution gives it staying power. But once an issue is settled, it evaporates.

The Ziegernik Effect is a well-established entry in the lexicon of psychology. I am now proposing a modern corollary for the Age of Google: the Silver Effect, which states that the less effort it takes to find the answer to a question, the more likely we are to promptly forget it. Had my research into the Fresian language required an afternoon of sneezing amid musky library shelves, I doubt I would have so quickly erased its existence from my mind.

As a corollary to the Silver Effect, I offer the Map App Effect, which states that the ease of finding directions via GPS is making it impossible for us to remember them. Before satellites dotted the sky, accurate directions often required consulting more than one paper map and gathering pertinent details from other humans like, "there will be a cemetery on the left," or, "turn right after the big yellow silo." Once you acquired such critical information, you really didn't want to forget it. Sometimes you even wrote it down. And as any teacher will tell you, taking notes helps you remember. But now, thanks to the Map App Effect, I must advise you not to ask me which exit to take off of the Grand Central Parkway in Queens if you wish to make a last-minute course correction and spring for the 59th Street Bridge instead of the Triborough. Yes, unlike Siri, I still refer to these bridges by their old (true) names. But my memory of how to get from one to the other is fading.

Does the Silver Effect have any basis in fact? Has it already been noted, discredited or named for someone with far more suitable credentials? No doubt I could end these mysteries with a few quick finger taps. But I'm going to resist that temptation for a while. I figure that if I stew over these questions before resolving them, I just might remember the answers.