How Google Is Changing Our Brains
A few weeks ago I explored the negative implications of social media addiction on mental health, today I wanted to discuss some of the other implications of technology on the human brain. While there is no doubt that we are being heavily impacted by the technology that surrounds us, experts continue to debate the consequences. Ten years ago, in 2008, Nicholas Carr posed the question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Today we still struggle to answer this. I chose to debate this topic myself, please take a look at what I’ve found:
There is no doubt that a massive shift has taken place in the way information is stored, shared, and received, and in the past decade this transition has accelerated rapidly with the expansion and evolution of the internet. Gone are the days of combing through dusty library stacks, thumbing through encyclopedia pages, and even racking your brain for that small piece of information that is just at the tip of your tongue. Today the answer to nearly any question can be found in the time it takes to type in a quick Google search.
Throughout history people have gone from sharing information orally, limited by distance and language, to documenting information into a physical form, to be shared and easily disseminated. Today exists an electronic society, where information can be recorded and shared across the globe virtually instantly. This evolution in the way information is stored and shared has many questioning if basic human intelligence is being stunted, even reversed, by the lack of necessity for information recall and retention that was required in the past.
None have put it quite so eloquently as Nicholas Carr posing the question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” While there is no question that the way humans learn and absorb information is changing, the term “stupid” is subjective, and there are better questions to determine human intelligence and capability. In this paper I will address those questions, and ultimately answer Carr’s inquiry into the impact of contemporary technology on the human brain.
In the aforementioned work of Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” he attempts to answer this puzzle of a question. The article explains how difficult it has become for, even the most intellectual individuals, to take in information in the ways that were common just ten years ago. Not without a touch of irony, in his 4174-word discussion, Carr explains how challenging it can be for people to sit down and read large blocks of text, books, and other traditionally wordy information sources; making some interesting points along the way (Carr).
This analysis explains how the sheer volume of information available to anyone, via the internet, has altered our attention span, and the way in which we can absorb information. This evolution has been coined by the term, “power browse” which Carr explains is the new way people read. This new style of reading, “puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else and may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged [as a result of] the printing press.” (Carr).
The new term of “power browsing” is now the common expression used to describe the way the human brain has adapted to reading. In Power Browsing: Empirical Evidence at the College Level, a research paper written by students at Benedictine University, the authors examine the effects of the power browsing trend. They define power browse as the act of skimming and searching for key words, as opposed to reading each individual word in a block of text. In the study, students are examined to determine if the act of power browsing carries over from simply viewing the internet, to more complex tasks such as taking an exam, and whether or not it has an impact on knowledge retention and overall grade. Of the 41 students observed, 18 of them power browsed the questions on an exam. The resulting grades of those who power browsed the exam were correspondingly negative (Kandra, Harden, & Babbra).
This study determined that the practice of power browsing, a practice developed as a result of the internet and search engine use, carries over in about 43% of cases, to activities unrelated to technology. While power browsing is effective when the user is accessing electronic information, it is not an effective means of absorbing information outside of the web. This discrepancy could be an argument in favor of Carr’s question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Unfortunately, a habit developed as a result of the internet is carrying over, and potentially negatively impacting some of the subjects of this study, and presumably many other individuals. Although it did not seem to affect all students, and this is just one case study, the findings correlate with Carr’s arguments.
Carr also references James Olds, a professor of Neuroscience at George Mason University. Olds claims that, “the brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” (Carr). This is perhaps exemplified in the study on power browsing. However, this provides interesting insight into the brain’s unique ability to adapt, and with extreme speed.
A study of middle aged adults, on cerebral activity during internet use, also exposed some interesting things about brain function, and changes caused by web browsing. The article Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching took an interesting approach to understanding how internet use has impacted the human brain. In this study two groups of people were examined; one group referred to as the “Net Naïve” group which included individuals whose web browsing and internet use was minimal, as well as a “Net Savvy” group who had internet practices that were frequent, and common for the average adult today (Small et al., 116).
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the brains of each group was examined while the subjects were conducting internet research. It turns out that the group with minimal experience performing internet searching had brain activity similar to that of reading a book or block of text while browsing online. Conversely, the Net Savvy group had significant increases in signal intensity within the brain. This difference in brain activity suggests that there was a different way that information was being absorbed in the brain, perhaps the cerebral activity being witnessed within the Net Savvy group could be evidence of power browsing. The study found that internet searching, “may alter the brain’s responsiveness inneural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning.” Essentially proving that the way through which we obtain information is, in fact, changing the way our brain operates (Smith et al., 116).
The short video How the Internet is Changing Your Brain explains how memory has changed in the past 20 years. According to the video:
Our brains recognize that most of the flood of online information is trivial and doesn’t deserve our full attention. The problem is, the brain does what we train it to do. And every time we open a browser, we prepare for skimming instead of learning. So even if we really want to remember something from Google, our brains are predisposed to forget. Everything we ever wanted to know is available to us, and we have conditioned ourselves to ignore it (Academic Earth).
This information suggests that users of the internet are not necessarily becoming “stupid” but one could argue that our brains are working to become more efficient. When the information is immediately available, the brain recognizes that there is no need for retention.
Carr explains how Google has made the proclamation that, “we’d all ‘be better off’ if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence.” He states that:
In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.” (Carr).
This idea has a name, “cognitive offloading” a term coined by Canadian researcher Evan R Risko and British researcher Sam Gilbert (Perry).
Further exploring this phenomenon: the human brain has been relying on cognitive offloading for hundreds of years. First when humans were able to document information, as opposed to having in memorized; later with the use of calculators, clocks, and computers. However now, the ease of the internet has perpetuated our reliance on cognitive offloading, and our brains have changed as a result (Perry).
In the same way the practices and habits that people have developed, as a result of internet use, transferred to exam taking in the study at Benedictine University; these practices have penetrated other aspects of human life as well. Another example is in cultural experiences and activities. When people have access to technology which allows them to capture a moment, such as a picture in a museum, their brain no longer feels required to retain the information as it comes to unconsciously rely on cognitive offloading.
While the belief has always been that memory occurs inside the mind, there is increasing evidence that memory is now something that exists with the assistance of my outside agents. In another study surrounding the concept of cognitive offloading, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz worked with two groups of participants. One group was allowed to utilize the internet in answering trivia questions, while the other group was allowed to work only from memory. Following this exercise all participants were allowed to use Google to answer questions. Results found that the group who was never required to recall answers from memory never even bothered to try to do so. While the group that could not access the internet the first round, gave an attempt at recalling information before reverting to Google:
Memory is changing. Our research shows that as we use the internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives. (Storm et al., 717).
A series of experiments testing recognition and retention produced some similar findings. Researchers from several universities including Columbia, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard found that when faced with difficult questions, subjects have, “lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” (Sparrow et al., 776).
While all of the research and evidence is overwhelmingly suggesting that the human brain has come to rely on the help of the internet, or Google, the question of if it is making us stupid, is not easily answered. With all technology removed, people may struggle to recall information, however in a world with an overwhelming amount of electronic supplementation, it would be ridiculous to assume that humans would be better off reverting to storing endless amounts of (mostly) useless information in their brains.
Author Clive Thompson explains how while machines continue to get smarter and more powerful, they are enabling us to become more creative; more useful ourselves. “How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers?” Thompson answers his own question, “Think of harder questions.” (Thompson, 67). With so many suggesting that the internet, that Google, is dumbing down the human race, one must ask himself if he is willing to revert to the alternative. Just as all other technology throughout history, the internet and search engines like Google, are enabling us to take our knowledge further. Yes, the human brain is changing and adapting, however that is exactly what it was designed to do. As generations have passed the brain has developed with technology and found ways to reach its full potential. So, when Nicholas Carr asks if Google is “making us stupid” the simplest answer to his questions is, in fact, “no.”
Car, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, 2008.
“How the Internet Is Changing Your Brain.” Academic Earth, Academic Earth, 2018, academicearth.org/electives/internet-changing-your-brain/.
Kandra, Kelly L., et al. “Power Browsing: Empirical Evidence at the College Level.” National Social Science Association, vol. 2, no. 2, 2011, www.nssa.us/tech_journal/volume_2-2/vol2-2_article4.htm.
Perry, Phillip. “Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet Is Changing the Human Brain.” Big Think, Taylor & Francis, 16 Aug. 2016, bigthink.com/philip-perry/cognitive-offloading-how-the-internet-is-changing-the-human-brain.
Small, Gary, et al. “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching.” Am J Geriatr Psychiatry, vol. 17, no. 2, 17 Feb. 2009, pp. 116–126., doi:10.1097/JGP.0b013e3181953a02.
Sparrow, Betsy, et al. “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.” Science, vol. 333, no. 6043, 5 Aug. 2011, pp. 776–778., doi:10.1126/science.1207745.
Storm, Benjamin, et al. “Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet Is Increasingly Taking Over Human Memory.” Memory, vol. 25, no. 6, 18 July 2016, pp. 717–723., doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1210171.
Thompson, Clive. Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Vol. 3, Penguin Random House, 2014.