What is Google doing to your brain?
Training and Development

What is Google doing to your brain?

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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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

Comments

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Neeraj Kohli on January 09 2015

All these intriguing findings shared in above articles point to re-establish what our ancient scientists (rishis, seers) have said, meditation is the key tool necessary to learn to better manage our minds. In the digital virtual era, its relevance has only gone up. Therefore practicing some form of meditative technique twice daily is no longer a luxury trip to the inner world but very much an essential requirement to keep our minds intact and balanced.

no-images

David Howardon Jan 15 2015 | 00:42

Hi Neeraj, I am not sure where you get that thought from, there is nothing in the article that indicated a need to meditate in order to read or comprehend what is read. I read Nicholas Carr's book, and he gives a lot of historical information about both the development of the mind, and the way we access or use information. There wasn't any historical reference to meditation. I don't find meditation to be any help at all, and can't recall ever doing it. And yet I read all day long both on the Internet, as well as 200-year-old books, and my number one strength according to StrengthsFinder is "learning". But if that's what you need to do, then go for it. But I don't think we can prescribe it is a general directive.

no-images

Rajesh Menon on January 09 2015

Google is actually to be seen as an extension of your brain. It helps us not only with facts but sometimes with the interpretation of facts as well.

no-images

STEFANO on January 09 2015

Using Internet like Google, Microsoft and other services, you will be Smarter Yes ! but at the same time You will be not so much superficial and You will not use your brain in deep.

no-images

Anver on January 10 2015

and it seems to me Google can help us all read more efficiently. That includes reading faster, understanding better, and retaining more. The research is there, actually "here and there," and all that is needed is an understanding of that research, application of known technology (and about to be known), and a little imagination and creativity. All new technology helps mankind. Not everyone realizes that.

no-images

Mike Breeden on January 10 2015

One of the pioneers of the web did predict that it would become an extension of your memory. It certainly is for mine and mine is overloaded, so I can use the help. As for superficial thinking, there are tons of things that contribute to that. I do agree that the internet does not foster deep thought and that is vital to the development of wisdom. I would say I know more for Google, because anything I ant to know, I can. I just wanted to know whether I should drain cans of beans when cooking. A report from University of Michigan told why (reduction in salt and indigestible sugars. I could never have found that useful fact or 1000 like it). I dare say, it has a lot to do with how you use it.... Are you looking for cat videos? I think what is most missing and most critically missing is a bit of focus, something books foster, but not the internet.

no-images

Anver on January 11 2015

Google is improving the way our brains function. And I would see this phenomenal resource applied to our reading efficiency. How fast we read. How well we understand. How much we retain. You can do it Google! There is a substantial amount of research to help you accomplish this major achievement for mankind. Show us how to do it!

no-images

Azam on January 11 2015

I am totally agree with you, yes google make our life easier and side by side it make us bad reader, now a days everything we need is found in google so the children are being detached with our regular book reading and the memorizing capacity is decreased.

no-images

Wayne Caswell on January 11 2015

Did the printing press make people stupid? That's absurd, because it actually expanded their ability to learn and explore. The Internet does that too but much more so, and with the ability to share ideas, people are able to learn from others and contribute to the world's knowlwedgebase. They don't have to remember details they can easily find online, but the brain is stimulated in many more beneficial ways.

no-images

Vince on January 12 2015

I can see the point in trying to read your article. My eyes were regularly being distracted from the article to the scrolling comments sidebar.

no-images

Lenny D on January 13 2015

I believe what is being missed in all this is how becoming too reliant on searching for answers or solutions reduces the need and therfore the ability to problem solve and break things down in a way that allows us to find our own answers. My question or interest lies in how will future generations be able to tell if the information they are reading is real or rubbish (propaganda even) if they have lost their ability to gather the memory needed to be able to read between the lines? The attempts of some commercials to make fun that "if it was on the Internet it must be true" type comments may be less funny in the future.

no-images

Andrew Braun on January 14 2015

Fantastic to see so much interest in this topic! Thanks, everyone, for your great input, and please do keep it coming. You all raise a lot of really interesting points. I'm particularly interested in Neeraj Kohli's commment on meditation--given research that suggests that rest is actually instrumental in the brain learning and processing things, that actually does seem like a good way to approach using the more fragmented information sources that dominate a lot of modern life. Mike Breeden and Wayne Caswell also make very good points: the internet is, in many ways, a very beneficial development on both a societal and an individual level (like the printing press) and we certainly shouldn't approach it with fear, but wisdom is always good. And finally, Lenny D, excellent insight on how future generations might have a decreased ability to spot deceptions simply because they might not have the internal data necessary to identify incongruencies in external situations. And if anything, these comments certainly go to prove that the internet has great potential to educate and provoke critical discussion ;)

no-images

Mohammed Mosam on November 21 2015

The internet has created vast repositories of knowledge and thus the ability to research information is way easier then it used to be. But whilst there is beneficial knowledge, control is needed to be excercised against non-beneficial information. Correct in that one can easily get distracted by info sidebars and get deeper into the trawl of the web losing focus. I think it's still a good idea to balance online reading with offline reading. Having a good book in hand still feels good.

no-images

Ghanshyam Patil on November 24 2015

Google is processing data and shows that data's extracted result (Information) to requester. Information Is not Knowledge. In my Hindu Mythology its clearly mention - 'If anything (specially knowledge) gets by struggle/ handwork then only it can be applied in life for welfare'. ------- And by my own experience its really True.

no-images

Neeraj Kohli on January 09 2015

All these intriguing findings shared in above articles point to re-establish what our ancient scientists (rishis, seers) have said, meditation is the key tool necessary to learn to better manage our minds. In the digital virtual era, its relevance has only gone up. Therefore practicing some form of meditative technique twice daily is no longer a luxury trip to the inner world but very much an essential requirement to keep our minds intact and balanced.

no-images

David Howardon Jan 15 2015 | 00:42

Hi Neeraj, I am not sure where you get that thought from, there is nothing in the article that indicated a need to meditate in order to read or comprehend what is read. I read Nicholas Carr's book, and he gives a lot of historical information about both the development of the mind, and the way we access or use information. There wasn't any historical reference to meditation. I don't find meditation to be any help at all, and can't recall ever doing it. And yet I read all day long both on the Internet, as well as 200-year-old books, and my number one strength according to StrengthsFinder is "learning". But if that's what you need to do, then go for it. But I don't think we can prescribe it is a general directive.

no-images

Rajesh Menon on January 09 2015

Google is actually to be seen as an extension of your brain. It helps us not only with facts but sometimes with the interpretation of facts as well.

no-images

STEFANO on January 09 2015

Using Internet like Google, Microsoft and other services, you will be Smarter Yes ! but at the same time You will be not so much superficial and You will not use your brain in deep.

no-images

Anver on January 10 2015

and it seems to me Google can help us all read more efficiently. That includes reading faster, understanding better, and retaining more. The research is there, actually "here and there," and all that is needed is an understanding of that research, application of known technology (and about to be known), and a little imagination and creativity. All new technology helps mankind. Not everyone realizes that.

no-images

Mike Breeden on January 10 2015

One of the pioneers of the web did predict that it would become an extension of your memory. It certainly is for mine and mine is overloaded, so I can use the help. As for superficial thinking, there are tons of things that contribute to that. I do agree that the internet does not foster deep thought and that is vital to the development of wisdom. I would say I know more for Google, because anything I ant to know, I can. I just wanted to know whether I should drain cans of beans when cooking. A report from University of Michigan told why (reduction in salt and indigestible sugars. I could never have found that useful fact or 1000 like it). I dare say, it has a lot to do with how you use it.... Are you looking for cat videos? I think what is most missing and most critically missing is a bit of focus, something books foster, but not the internet.

no-images

Anver on January 11 2015

Google is improving the way our brains function. And I would see this phenomenal resource applied to our reading efficiency. How fast we read. How well we understand. How much we retain. You can do it Google! There is a substantial amount of research to help you accomplish this major achievement for mankind. Show us how to do it!

no-images

Azam on January 11 2015

I am totally agree with you, yes google make our life easier and side by side it make us bad reader, now a days everything we need is found in google so the children are being detached with our regular book reading and the memorizing capacity is decreased.

no-images

Wayne Caswell on January 11 2015

Did the printing press make people stupid? That's absurd, because it actually expanded their ability to learn and explore. The Internet does that too but much more so, and with the ability to share ideas, people are able to learn from others and contribute to the world's knowlwedgebase. They don't have to remember details they can easily find online, but the brain is stimulated in many more beneficial ways.

no-images

Vince on January 12 2015

I can see the point in trying to read your article. My eyes were regularly being distracted from the article to the scrolling comments sidebar.

no-images

Lenny D on January 13 2015

I believe what is being missed in all this is how becoming too reliant on searching for answers or solutions reduces the need and therfore the ability to problem solve and break things down in a way that allows us to find our own answers. My question or interest lies in how will future generations be able to tell if the information they are reading is real or rubbish (propaganda even) if they have lost their ability to gather the memory needed to be able to read between the lines? The attempts of some commercials to make fun that "if it was on the Internet it must be true" type comments may be less funny in the future.

no-images

Andrew Braun on January 14 2015

Fantastic to see so much interest in this topic! Thanks, everyone, for your great input, and please do keep it coming. You all raise a lot of really interesting points. I'm particularly interested in Neeraj Kohli's commment on meditation--given research that suggests that rest is actually instrumental in the brain learning and processing things, that actually does seem like a good way to approach using the more fragmented information sources that dominate a lot of modern life. Mike Breeden and Wayne Caswell also make very good points: the internet is, in many ways, a very beneficial development on both a societal and an individual level (like the printing press) and we certainly shouldn't approach it with fear, but wisdom is always good. And finally, Lenny D, excellent insight on how future generations might have a decreased ability to spot deceptions simply because they might not have the internal data necessary to identify incongruencies in external situations. And if anything, these comments certainly go to prove that the internet has great potential to educate and provoke critical discussion ;)

no-images

Mohammed Mosam on November 21 2015

The internet has created vast repositories of knowledge and thus the ability to research information is way easier then it used to be. But whilst there is beneficial knowledge, control is needed to be excercised against non-beneficial information. Correct in that one can easily get distracted by info sidebars and get deeper into the trawl of the web losing focus. I think it's still a good idea to balance online reading with offline reading. Having a good book in hand still feels good.

no-images

Ghanshyam Patil on November 24 2015

Google is processing data and shows that data's extracted result (Information) to requester. Information Is not Knowledge. In my Hindu Mythology its clearly mention - 'If anything (specially knowledge) gets by struggle/ handwork then only it can be applied in life for welfare'. ------- And by my own experience its really True.

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