If you’re anything like me, you feel a little better about yourself after reading a physical book—almost as if you did something healthy. But if I spend an equal amount of time browsing the internet, even if I’m reading some informative long-form journalism, I feel a bit as if I’m wasting time, and inevitably get distracted by a sidebar link about an iPhone case that can call the police. I don’t even have an iPhone, but I do want to read that article.
If you just Googled that iPhone case and came back to read the rest of this article, thanks so much! Now, to the point: in 2008, Nicholas Carr published an article in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” While he didn’t answer the question specifically, he did address his concern—a concern many Americans still have: that the internet is changing the way our brains work, and not for the better. He quotes psychologist Maryanne Wolf as saying that reading online may turn us into “mere decoders of information” rather than “deep readers” who can, in a distraction-free environment, make connections and think critically. The web is a distracting place, and the fact that there’s so much more to do on it than just read means that we may be losing some cognitive skills.
Carr admits, however, that there was a dearth of studies, possibly due to a lack of hard data. His article has made plenty of waves since its publication, though—he even wrote a book expanding his argument—and in turn, it has inspired some research. We still have a wait for more conclusive results ahead of us, but in the meantime, here’s what’s happened in the scientific world since the article’s publication.
UCLA, 2008: Google might make you smarter
In a study of adults from 55-76 years old, Gary Small, a UCLA researcher, found that searching the internet actually activated more regions of the brain than reading a book did. But here’s the catch: it only did so for people who were already experienced computer users. Small attributes the disparity to extra cognitive processes that are required for web searching—you need to be able to identify relevant results and make judgements about their reliability. Those inexperienced in search strategies, however, did not show extra activity, as they were not using these tools.
Taken on its own, this is fairly good news for millennials—you always knew you were smarter than your parents, right?—but as pretty much every scientist studying the topic agrees, the question isn’t about the internet changing whether we think, but how we think. As Guinevere F. Eden, director of Georgetown’s Center for the Study of Learning, told The New York Times, “The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment… The question is, does it [internet use] change your brain in some beneficial way?”
Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner, 2011: The internet changes the way we remember (paywall)
In a series of experiments, researchers Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner discovered several things: 1) we think of the internet first when faced with a difficult problem 2) we are less likely to remember something if we believe we can look it up online later, but 3) we are more likely to remember where to find the information (but not the information itself) if we believe it is saved somewhere.
These experiments are based on the idea of “transactive memory”—the idea that since we cannot possibly store all the information we need ourselves, we store it externally. For much of history, this has been a social and biological process—our friends and family have the answers to such questions as “what’s the deal with Nietzsche?” or “why doesn’t he love me anymore?”
Now, though, the internet holds most of that data, and it’s highly available—we simply have to remember the location of the information. The good news: some scientists believe that we may be able to think more efficiently if we don’t need to remember so much. The bad news: we may lose our stores of knowledge on which we draw for problem-solving and creativity. Also, you should probably talk to someone about your relationship if you Googled that second question.
Note: here’s their Scientific American article—a free, simplified version of their report.
Wegner, 2013: We think we’re smart even when we rely on Google
One of the researchers in the study above conducted another study, in which people were asked to answer trivia questions, with or without the help of Google, and then rate how smart they felt (cognitive self-esteem). The researchers were surprised to find that Googlers actually had higher self-esteem ratings than people who knew the answer themselves. In fact, even when the groups were brought together and told they both got the same score, the Googlers still rated themselves higher.
What does all this mean? Simply that we are starting to know less but think we know more. This may explain YouTube comments. What Wegner takes it to signify, however, is that we’ve begun to include Google as part of our cognitive tool set, even to the point where we don’t distinguish Googling something from actually knowing the answer. The good news is that this will probably be an advantage, as it means our brains are adapting to new ways of thinking that will ultimately be more useful.
Mills, 2014: Adolescent brains are safe
One of the things that most people are worried about today is the effect that being connected from a very early age will have on children born into the world of the internet. Will they be irreversibly shaped in a detrimental way by outsourcing memory to the web? Kathryn Mills of University College London says “no.” It turns out that the brain changes that occur in adolescents are mostly genetic; though environmental factors do play a role, they are not necessarily permanent.
Though Mills, too, admits a lack of data, she cites a study that examined how being part of a highly connected network affected cognition. It found that being highly connected to other people who could give you the information you needed was effective, but that using the internet to find information actually had more cognitive benefit, as it requires strategy formation and discernment in choosing sources. Finally, she reminds us that adult brains are also capable of change, so our adolescent years do not necessarily carve our cognition in stone.
Hooper and Herath, 2014: Google is making you a bad reader
It’s all been pretty good so far—most of these studies seem fairly optimistic about the cognitive benefits—or at least lack of harm—that the internet (personified as Google) seems to offer. But the results of this study show that reading on the internet has negative effects on concentration, comprehension, absorption, and recall rates. Additionally, people enjoyed reading online less than reading offline. However, the researchers point out that the study was conducted on those who had been taught to read in an era before the internet had reached the levels it did in the 2000s, and that it has been demonstrated that different strategies are required for online reading as opposed to offline reading.
If this study is conducted again in twenty years, then, it is possible that online and offline reading will have the same approximate results—but for now, this backs up Carr’s assertion somewhat: reading online is overall not as good as reading offline. It doesn’t necessarily show that anything fundamental is changing in our brain structure, which is Carr’s main contention, but it does explicitly note that we will need to change reading behaviours in order to adapt to an online environment, which will have an effect on our cognition.
Though there are more studies out there, both positive and negative, these make a good representative sample of the progress so far. Six years on from the article we still don’t have much that is conclusive, but preliminary results seem to say that Google is not actually making us “stupid” but it is very likely changing what intelligence means to us. Intelligence is becoming less about memory and more about knowing how to access and connect external information.
It seems so far that this process is at least as mentally demanding as pre-internet methods of human information-gathering were—perhaps even more. So for now, it’s probably best to maintain a healthy balance. Hone your online reading skills and maintain your offline reading skills—but if you spend all weekend perusing online articles, don’t feel too bad about yourself. You’re just exercising some different brain muscles.
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