I recently heard a term that was new to me, “The Google Effect.” So of course, what did I do? I googled it. It turns out that there’s been quite a lot of research into the effects of online search on our brains and our apparent decline in the ability to remember things. A 2011 study by Harvard University asked subjects to search for different types of information. Some of the information was readily available with just one or two clicks online; other information required more extensive research across multiple sites. When subjects believed that they could easily go back to the information they found online, they performed much worse on a test to see how much of the information they could remember – independent of Google.
If the knowledge required a more nuanced or complex understanding of multiple facts, the participants were much more likely to commit this information to memory. Some people might think this result is alarming. Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows, paints a scary picture of an entire generation that is nearly incapable of “deep learning,” but very adept at “skimming.”
This is exactly the result that many companies have unwittingly engineered with their internal knowledge base, by training employees on locating procedures and job aids, rather than trying to memorize the information or think it through for themselves. And there are many good reasons for wanting employees to trust the database instead of their own memory. After all, memory can be faulty. The unreliability of eye witness accounts to crimes and other events has been well documented. Memory can also fail us in times of pressure, so that we can’t perform tasks we already know.
It is true that Google and other search engines have rewired our brains – because everything we experience rewires us in some way. Neuroscience has shown us that brain plasticity continues until death, so we could substitute just about any technology for the statement “Google is changing our brains.” For example, “The pencil eraser is changing our brains.” Or, we could go as far as monk Johannes Triphemus, who berated the printing press because it removed the spiritual connection to producing meticulously copied hand-written manuscripts.
It seems to me that the real question isn’t whether or not technology is changing us – it is how will we respond to our own evolution. Viktor Frankl said that “the last of the human freedoms (is) to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So I consciously think about my learning process and how my brain works. I know that there are some things I want to be able to locate online, such as the names of B-list actors I recognize on TV but can’t quite place. I also know that there are things I want to know deeply, like the mechanisms of the learning brain. And there are things somewhere in between, like how to hit a long drive or sink a put. I don’t waste time worrying about whether I’m getting a little less “intelligent” as I become more reliant on technology. After all, that statement is working with an outdated definition of “intelligence” in the first place. Your IQ is based upon your ability to perform specific language, problem-solving and math challenges, compared to the average scores of people your age. Today’s literature is full of alternative definitions of “intelligence,” so what does it really mean to say that technology is making us “less intelligent?” Less what, exactly?