Google changing how humans think

As we rely more on the Internet for facts, we may be getting dumber. But that’s not necessarily bad.


(Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Didn’t Plato once say something about the dangers of external memory? Fifteen seconds on the web reveals that, no, it was Socrates, as quoted by Plato in Phaedrus: “If men learn [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls…they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company.”

If Socrates had seen Google coming, he might have knocked back that hemlock a little faster. Armed with smartphones, we can simultaneously know everything and nothing; from the name of an ’80s actress to how to read a balance sheet, it’s all at the swipe of a finger. Now, recent research suggests that, just as Socrates feared of writing, perpetual access to information is changing the way we think.

The 2011 study, conducted by a team of psychologists at Columbia, Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard universities, put groups of students through four cognitive and computer-based experiments designed to test recall and word recognition. From the results, the psychologists concluded that our reliance on the Internet has affected how we relate to information—instead of remembering the information itself, we just remember where to find it.

In one experiment, researchers gave participants memorable trivia, such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” then showed them computer folders with mundane names where the trivia was stored. Later, the subjects were much better at recalling the folders than the facts. The authors don’t claim this is a negative development; instead they liken it to the “group thinking” of a large office, where people know who on their team has the knowledge they need.

While the move from knowing information to knowing where to find it has many benefits—including freeing up your brain for more reasoning and analytical thinking—there’s a downside too. Randy Connolly, an associate professor of computer science and information systems at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, says it could lead to less innovation. He posits that we tend to conform to a selective “power law distribution” in our online searches, with the vast majority choosing only the one or two most popular links. It makes sense to be aware of mainstream thinking, says Connolly, but true innovation comes from straying off the beaten path: “If I were a manager, I’d always be asking my staff where they got information. You can’t skim for a factoid as evidence of anything.”

To make sure you don’t fall prey to mistaking easily found facts for knowledge, founder Alvaro Fernandez recommends keeping a brain-fitness regimen. He suggests setting aside 20 minutes three times a week to exercise three core areas: attention, working memory and cognitive ability. “In one session do meditation, in one memorize some Mandarin characters, then do mental math in the third.”

As long as you keep your mind sharp, Fernandez doesn’t see danger in relying more on Google for hard facts. “Over time, IQ scores of people in their 50s and 60s are getting better,” he says. “The net effect is positive, but as individuals we need strategies to learn to cope.”