Keep yourself from losing your memory to the Internet

Unplug. Slow down. Search your brain.

2. Traduzco, luego olvido_photo


The development of the Internet may have been the most significant technological innovation since the invention of the printing press. It has simplified and speeded up the search for information in ways that were unimaginable until a few decades ago. However, its harmful effects on the attention, concentration and memory capacity of those who make an intensive use of Internet search tools are starting to become evident. In this respect, we, translators, are not the exception— Both for those who were born in the digital era and for the ones, like me, who have followed information technology advancements in awe, the use of the Internet in our profession is a bare necessity, and we can no longer picture ourselves doing without it. What is more, we cannot imagine ourselves doing without the Internet in our personal lives either. But we will need to find ways to prevent this from interfering with basic functions of our brains.

A translator’s work, in figures

Typically, we translate about 3,000 words per day, which means that, on average, the number of words we translate per hour is about 300, and the number of words we translate per minute is about 5. Thus, we usually make at least two terminology-related “micro-decisions” per minute while at work, and the number of such micro-decisions we make on any given day is about 1,200. One thousand two hundred times a day we face the challenge of finding a mother-tongue equivalent to a term in a foreign language, or vice versa. If the text we are translating is not completely familiar to us, or if it has not been written in a clear, consistent manner, the size of the challenge can increase exponentially.

It is at this point where the resource that has most deeply transformed our research work, i.e., the use of the Internet, comes into play. Today, it would be unthinkable for us to work without a high-speed, uninterrupted access to the Internet. In fact, many of us have signed up with more than one Internet service provider as part of our contingency plans.

For experienced translators working in a narrow field of specialization, it is relatively simple to find reliable sources of information to achieve higher levels of accuracy and speed. Today, the use of the Internet is vital, e.g., in the development of specialized linguistic corpora, a common tool of our trade in the present state of things.

But many of us never imagined that the 1,200 micro-decisions we usually make during the 10 hours we connect ourselves to the Internet every day, sometimes 7 days a week, would end up changing how our brains work, our capacity to quickly remember basic data, and our ability to focus on fairly short pieces of reading.

Negative effects of the ease of access to information

Since time immemorial, humans have relied not only on the information stored in their own brains, but also on specific data for the preservation of which other members of their social groups are “responsible.” At home, for example, it may be the mother who usually remembers birthdays, while it may be the father who knows which soccer team came in third in the World Championship ten years ago.

This distribution of memory tasks avoids the unnecessary duplication of efforts and helps expand the group’s collective memory capacity. By off-loading responsibility for certain types of information, we free up cognitive resources that would otherwise be required to remember such information; instead, we use them to increase the depth of our knowledge in the areas we consider ourselves to be in charge of.

As helpful as this approach may be, though, it needs to be used with care. Socrates already regretted how detrimental writing would be to human memory in the long run, as individuals, rather than recalling things on their own, had started to depend on the written word. At present, for all practical purposes, it seems to be no longer efficient for us to use our brains to store information. But we must acknowledge that near-constant use of the Internet has formidable effects on our lives. Some people compare the Internet to an “outboard brain” or an external hard drive, with a memory capacity much larger than that a human brain has —or needs, for that matter. Researchers are concerned that the use of the Internet may be as addictive as alcohol or tobacco, encouraging the same kind of compulsive behaviors.

The ease of access to information, one of the primary benefits of Internet use, is having profound effects on our ability to retain the information acquired. Currently completed studies suggest that it can alter the mechanisms our brains use to build long-term memory. According to Elias Aboujaoude, M.D., psychiatrist and investigator at Stanford University, “Why bother to remember when all information is at our fingertips […]. Memorizing has become a lost art as we have moved from cramming our brains to cramming our hard drives and virtual stores.”

Nowadays, we can instantly access the entire contents of human memory through a straightforward, quick search on the Internet. It is held by many that, as a result of this immediacy, Internet use is impairing our cognitive abilities, undermining our impulse to store information in our own biological memory banks, which has come to be labeled as the “Google Effect.”

In his controversial article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, American writer Nicholas Carr, expert in the new communication technologies, states: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping my neural circuitry, reprogramming my memory. My mind isn’t going—as far as I can tell—but it’s changing.”

Two plagues of the Information Age: the feeling of knowing (FOK) and the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) experiences

Two of the most significant phenomena caused by the continuous use of technology to access information are the uncomfortable feeling of knowing (i.e., the certainty that you have knowledge of some piece of information in spite of being unable to retrieve it from your memory at a given time), and the tip-of-the-tongue state, or presque vu (French for “almost seen”), a state similar to the feeling of knowing, but in which retrieval is perceived as actually imminent).

These days, we do not make so much of an effort to remember data, as we do to remember how and where to locate them. If we are asked, e.g., to translate the name of a specific bone in the human body, our first reaction will most likely not be to think about human anatomy at all, but to try and figure out how to resolve the query using the Internet. Additionally, there are studies showing that, once we find the piece of data we are looking for, we tend to memorize not the data itself, but rather how and where we have found it so we can tackle the difficulty more easily if faced with it again later.

How adjusting to the excess of information is changing our behaviors

The vastness of the information available on the WWW utterly beats our ability to take it in, at least within a reasonable amount of time. As discussed above, more often than not, we nearly mechanically perform a search on the Internet before probing our own memories, and we tend to use, many times without being fully aware of it, a series of techniques that allow us to adjust to such an overload of data. These include:

  • Skimming, or reading a piece of writing quickly and actively, while focusing on identifying the main idea; this involves using strategies such as locating key words and anchoring our attention to typographical markers (e.g., underlined, bold, italicized, or highlighted words; headings and subheadings; diagrams, charts, tables; etc.).
  • Scanning, i.e., sweeping our eyes over chunks of text in search for specific pieces of information (e.g., proper or common nouns, numbers, dates, or other specific data), while ignoring the rest of the contents.
  • Previewing, to help determine whether the material can be helpful to us. The strategies we use in this case include examining the title, determining the name of the author, the date of the publication, etc.; reading the abstract or introduction, if any, or the first sentence of each paragraph, in search for relevant information; or checking the table of contents to get a general idea of what the material is about.

These reading methods enable us to access a large amount of information in a much shorter period of time, but it is thought that, once these methods become a habit, they can prevent us from concentrating on reading for long, and make us more prone to distraction.

Even though this does not largely affect the translation process —usually an active task—, it does become evident when proofreading or editing, which are, by their own nature, more passive activities. When doing so, we may mechanically tend to use the reading methods discussed above, with the unfortunate consequences that can be readily inferred. We may find ourselves sweeping our eyes over a piece of translated text, instead of reading it slowly, carefully, one word at a time, paying attention to punctuation marks and errors that may have escaped the spell checker.

It is also becoming apparent that these routines, which we may find so helpful at work, are little by little pervading our personal lives as well. In this context, we may grow increasingly reluctant to read lengthy articles or pieces of news and even books, or become impatient when having to listen to someone who does not quickly get to the point. Our pressing need for “mining” relevant information without much ado may turn into somewhat of an obsession for us. The same technology that allows us to be increasingly dynamic is, at the same time, leading us to display more and more rigid behaviors.

How to counteract, at least in part, the Google Effect

The good news is that we can reverse, even if only to some extent, these effects.

The most helpful approach seems to be avoiding quick, absent-minded reading, focusing on engaging in deep, careful reading, and making a conscious effort to consolidate the information acquired. In other words, the best thing we can do is build our concentration and nourish our long-term memory[1], the two aspects most severely affected by intensive, mechanical use of Internet search engines.

In addition to being pleasurable, deep reading stimulates the storage of information in the human memory. In her essay Traduction-interaction  : Lectures interactives et interactionnelles comme préparation à la traduction, Jeanne Dancette underlines the usefulness of “summarizing, stopping at obstacles and going back to verify or clarify an issue, and making anticipations and projections based on what we are reading.” These can be good starting points to [re]develop our reading ability, and, perhaps, to recover our old pleasure for reading.

Now, let’s see how to implement this in our translation practice by increasing our attention when reading, consolidating information in our long-term memory, and tapping our own internal resources.

  • Although time pressures are a common feature of most translation-related jobs, reading the text carefully and stopping at any difficulties or obscurities it may present (preferably before starting the translation task itself) could be an excellent way of approaching a new job. Many of us already do this as part of our routines, which helps us get a thorough understanding of the source text before we try to accurately convey it in our target language.
  • And while we are translating, it could also be extremely helpful for us to spend a few minutes, or even just a few seconds, trying to remember terms or expressions we are certain to have seen before —or to attempt to make some kind of anticipation or prediction about them— before performing a search on the Internet.

The mere fact of making the effort to memorize will help reeducate our brains, rewiring our brain synapses to help us learn new ideas and skills, not only at the present time, but also in the future.

Storing information in our long-term memory requires going through a process known as consolidation. If the information is not consolidated, it is forgotten. Storing pieces of data and establishing connections between them requires a large degree of concentration and intellectual or emotional commitment. It is also important to note that, given the way in which the human brain works, long-term memory processing requires several hours and occurs primarily during resting time. Sleeping well is therefore key in order not to forget what we have learned.


If we consistently use the Internet as an immediate resource, neglecting our own memory banks and bypassing our internal consolidation processes, it will not take long for us to see the consequences on our long-term memory.

The more we use the Internet, letting ourselves be swiftly carried from one site to another via search engines and hyperlinks, the more we are training our brains for distraction, for processing information in a quick and efficient way, but without sustained attention. We need to take action fast if we want to keep this from affecting us permanently. And we should not underestimate the power of the human brain, for which —unlike a computer, no matter how sophisticated— the sky is the limit.


[1] We can distinguish between three types of memory, i.e., sensory memory, which can last just a few seconds (it becomes evident, e.g., when retrieving from our memories something we have just heard, after apparently having missed it); short-term memory, which can last from a few minutes to a few hours; and long-term memory, which can last years.


This article has been adapted to English from: Traduzco, luego olvido



Photo used with permission from the author, photographer Salvatore Dore.

All rights reserved.



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