Lara Prendergast Lara Prendergast

Heads in the cloud

What happens when we outsource part of our brains to the internet?

The Spectator podcast: Listen to Isabel Hardman, Lara PrendergastCharlotte Jee, Editor of Techworld, and Professor Martin Conway, head of psychology at City University discuss the memory gap.

Ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I couldn’t tell you. Names disappear as swiftly as smoke. Birthdays, capital cities, phone numbers — the types of facts that used to come so readily — are no longer forthcoming. I’m 26, yet I feel I have the memory of a 70-year-old. My brain is a port through which details pass, but don’t stay.

I’m not alone. Many young people feel our memories have been shot to pieces. It’s the embarrassing secret of my generation. We can hardly recall a thing. We joke about having early onset Alzheimer’s, often with a hint of real anxiety. We know that when we reach to remember any detail — a route, a phrase, a historical fact — our minds do not perform at the critical moment. So we reach instead for our phones, which are much more trustworthy. We do so as naturally as we might scratch an itch. How to get from A to B. How to make risotto. How to write a magazine article. Can’t spell a word? No bother — tap a guess on to your screen and Google will figure it out.

Every day, and increasingly in every way, we are outsourcing our brains to the internet. But at what cost? As smartphones get smarter, it’s easy to argue that we’re getting thicker. That’s not quite true. Our brains are not necessarily shrivelling; they are adapting. Thanks to technology, the need to know has been replaced by the ability to find out. Younger people, especially the ‘digital natives’ who have never known life without the web, are most comfortable in this new environment.

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