How the Internet is Changing Your Brain

Given the ubiquity of Google, is memory obsolete? Academic Earth dares to ask, how is such easy access to information affecting our brains as we rely less and less on memory and more on technology?

google_changing_brain

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The average number of Google searches per day has grown from 9,800 in 1998 to over 4.7 trillion today.1 This may not be surprising, since we’ve all come to appreciate the thrill of instant information. But while it’s certainly convenient to have the sum of all knowledge at our fingertips, studies show that the “Google effect” is changing the way we think.

In a 2011 experiment published in Science Magazine, college students remembered less information when they knew they could easily access it later on the computer.2 With 49% of Americans now toting around Google on their smart phones, researchers concluded that the effect is the same. We’re relying on Google to store knowledge long-term, instead of our own brains.3

Neuroimaging of frequent Internet users shows twice as much activity in the short term memory as sporadic users during online tasks.4 Basically, our brain is learning to disregard information found online, and this connection becomes stronger every time we experience it. So the more we use Google, the less likely we are to retain what we see.

Our brains use information stored in the long-term memory to facilitate critical thinking. We need these unique memories to understand and interact with the world around us. If we rely on Google to store our knowledge, we may be losing an important part of our identity.


1Google Annual Search Statistics.” Statistic Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

2 Sparrow, B, J Liu, and D M. Wegner. “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.“ Science. 333.6043 (2011): 776-778. Print.

3Smartphones Account for Half of All Mobile Phones, Dominate New Phone Purchases in the US.” Newswire. Nielsen.com. The Nielsen Company, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

4 Small, G.W, T.D Moody, P Siddarth, and S.Y Bookheimer. “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation During Internet Searching.“ The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry : Official Journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. 17.2 (2009): 116-126. Print.

Transcript

How does the human memory work? Twenty years ago you might have found your answer in a book, or by asking a friend. But today, you’ll Google it. There were 3.5 million searches in 1998, now, there are 4.7 trillion search queries everyday.1 When something changes our lifestyle so monumentally, you can bet it’s changing us as well.

Google has become our external hard drive. In a recent experiment, college students remembered less information when they thought they could easily access it later. We used to rely on friends and family members for this method of memory outsourcing, remembering who knew what rather than the information itself.2 But now, Google is the friend with all of the expertise. If the sum of all knowledge is constantly available in our pockets, is it any wonder that we’ve stopped bothering to keep it in our heads?

Neurons that fire together, wire together.” And the same goes for those that fire apart. Neuroimaging of frequent Internet users shows twice as much activity in the prefrontal cortex as sporadic users.3 This part of the brain is reserved for short-term memory and quick decision-making. Essentially, our brains recognize that most of the flood of online information is trivial, and doesn’t deserve our full attention. The problem is, the brain does what we train it to do. And every time we open a browser, we prepare for skimming instead of learning. So even if we really want to remember something from Google, our brains are predisposed to forget. Everything we ever wanted to know is available to us, and we have conditioned ourselves to ignore it.

What do we actually know? If the goal is to forge a creative mind through critical thinking, our Google amnesia may be problematic. The information and experience that gets encoded into our long-term memory is the basis of our unique intelligence.4 Still, we may be able to mitigate the impact to our long-term memory by adapting our response to this new reality. After all, we can’t stop the sea change of the information age. In recent years, American schools have focused less on fact memorization and more on teaching students how to make innovative connections between the curriculum and real life.5 This way, it’s less about the knowledge you have, and more about how you use the information at hand.


1Google Annual Search Statistics.” Statistic Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

2 Khazan, Olga. “In the Era of ‘Google Effects,’ Why Memory Matters.“ Forbes. Forbes.com LLC, 20 July 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

3 Small, G.W, T.D Moody, P Siddarth, and S.Y Bookheimer. “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation During Internet Searching.“ The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry : Official Journal of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. 17.2 (2009): 116-126. Print.

4 Guenther, S. Garrity. “A Tale of Two Memories: Long-Term Memory and ‘Google Memory’“ WhatAreTheseIdeas.com. What Are These Ideas?, 21 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

5 Mount, Harry. “Children Can’t Think If They Don’t Learn Facts.” Telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

 

 

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