Much has been said about the potential perils of the so-called “Google-assisted memory.” In 2008, Nicholas Carr brought this controversy to the forefront with an article for The Atlantic. It proposed that those of us who rely heavily on the Internet to find and store information are missing out on the benefits of using the brain to accomplish those tasks by itself.
Well, a number of researchers took these ideas to heart, and set out to collect data about how relying on the Internet for knowledge affects the human brain. As it turns out, it’s not so bad. Researchers at UCLA have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that people experienced in web searching actually show increased brain activity while searching for new information when compared to Internet novices.
Scientific American has a fascinating excerpt available from a book titled Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? written by mother-daughter pair Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. In this essay on millennials who have grown up with the Internet, they give a voice to both arguments for and against Google-assisted memory. Carr’s intuition about distraction and memory issues with the advent of social media and search engines is shown in stark contrast to actual data.
The aforementioned UCLA study, published in 2009, clearly shows that a group of people with experience searching the web had twice the brain activity of a novice group when searching for information. By giving their brain a frequent workout with Google, those experienced with the web have strengthened their neural circuitry, and that potentially means that actively using search engines could help stave off the decline of mental capacity. The research into this area is far from complete, but early signs are promising.
Interestingly, Carr’s fear mongering isn’t even close to the first panic about technology contributing to a decline in mental capacity. Back in 370 BCE, Plato discusses rhetoric and writing in his dialogue Phaedrus. In this section, Socrates tells of an Egyptian legend that admonishes a god for giving humans the gift of writing because it will hinder their reliance on memory.
Everything old is new again. Any time something new, useful, and exciting happens, there will be a section of the population who fear moving forward. These people worry that embracing new technology works as a crutch for humanity. That wasn’t true thousands of years ago when Plato waxed philosophical about the woes of the written word, and it doesn’t seem true now either.
It is completely understandable to be cautious of becoming stagnant in some sort of apocalyptic WALL-E fashion. Worrying about technological progress because your gut tells you that Google and social media are making us stupid is a bad idea, though. Until there is actual hard data showing a decline in mental capacity thanks to technology, people in Carr’s camp seem a bit like old men yelling at kids that about how rock ‘n’ roll isn’t real music and how the television will rot their brains.