People have been saying that computers are making us dumber basically since computers existed. Then the Internet came, eventually bringing Google into existence, and any hope for the future of intelligent life spiraled off into cyberspace. A seminal 2008 cover story by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic put the question on the stand: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The article served more as a jumping off point for future research and over the course of the next few years, scientists and journalists alike tried to provide an answer with a number of experiments and studies. (Carr kept going too, expanding the six-page piece into a 276-page book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.)
A just-published study in Science offers the latest set of findings, and a quick read suggests that yes, Google is hampering our ability to recall information. Led by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia University, the study also found that Google improves certain kinds of memory, like methods for retrieving information. Sparrow's findings aren't the whole story, though. As scientists have stressed since the dawn of web, the effects of Internet usage on cognition are pretty complicated.
Search engines are rerouting our memory. According to Science, we're not necessarily losing our ability to remember things. Rather, the internet is changing how we remember. Ars Technica sums up the results nicely, "People are recalling information less, and instead can remember where to find the information they have forgotten." This is pretty similar to a 2008 report in The New York Times on reading online versus reading in print. Guinevere F. Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown, told The Times, "The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment," she said. "Whatever the pressures are on us to succeed, our brain will try and deal with it. The question is, does it change your brain in some beneficial way?"
Certain types of memory are improving. When the brain reroutes how we recall information, it develops different types of memory capabilities. Science offers this example: If somebody asks you how many national flags have just one color, do you think first about the actual flags? Or does your brain jump right to how you would find it? If you're an active Google user, you probably already started thinking of keywords. And the more you do it, the better you get at it. "The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others," says Gary Small, a neuroscience professor at UCLA.
Multitasking makes memory worse. This one seems obvious, but scientists are learning more about what exactly happens when you're flooded with the many distractions available online and try to engage. Comparing how well 60- to 80-year-olds could retain memories after a distraction versus 20- to 30-year-olds, a 2011 study linked attention and memory. Scientists found that our short-term memories while multitasking deteriorates over time. In other words, as we get older, we have a harder time with distractions. And the Internet will only make it worse. "This issue is growing in scope and societal relevance as multitasking is being fed by a dramatic increase in the accessibility and variety of electronic media," said Dr. Adam Gassaley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco.
Not using Google makes you stupid, too. A 2008 study at UCLA's Memory and Aging Center looked at how Internet-usage affected not only memory but also cognition. Led by Dr. Small, the scientists split a group of subjects between 55 and 76 years of age into a group of experienced and inexperienced Internet users, then used MRI scans to see how their brains worked when reading books or searching the web. Experienced Internet users actually showed increased brain activity, with more advanced decision-making skills and complex reasoning. In simple terms, the inexperienced Internet users lagged behind. Check out the brain on the right (with Google practice) versus the one on the left (without Google practice):
In a way, this is an age-old argument. Hieronimo Squarciafico, a 15th-century Venetian editor and critic of the printing press, once said, "Abundance of books makes men less studious." That may be true, but that doesn't necessarily mean they make us dumber.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.