Google: Changing how people think?

A new Columbia University study found that the use of Internet search engines alters the way the brain stores information.

Is Google making human memory obsolete? asked Matt Peckham in That’s the question raised by a new Columbia University study, which found that the use of Internet search engines like Google and Yahoo changes the way the brain stores information. In a series of experiments, researchers found that student subjects quickly forgot information they’d entered into a computer, if they believed they could just retrieve it from the computer later. In another test, subjects were asked to remember a string of facts and which folders these facts were stored in. To the researchers’ surprise, the subjects recalled the correct folders—but not the information itself. What this study reveals, said Kari Lipschutz in Adweek, is that we’re adapting to a powerful new technology by altering how we think. In effect, “Google is becoming your brain’s external hard drive.”

As one who likes my brain the way it is, said Jakob Nielsen in, I find this pretty alarming. It’s certainly convenient to, say, pull up any historical fact in a microsecond. But for a sense of the relative strength of European navies during the Renaissance, and how the struggle for power in that era has shaped the modern world, I still read a book or two—and weave that information into my memory. That’s what you call learning, and it’s what leads to “deep understanding.” The Web has its uses, but mainly, it “fragments information into tiny nuggets that can be digested in a two-minute visit.”

Socrates made a similar complaint in 370 B.C., said Ronald Bailey in Reason. That was long before Google, of course, but back then, the Greek philosopher was worried that writing was making human beings dumber. The written word transmits merely “the appearance of wisdom,” Socrates said, arguing that it would diminish the importance of memory and extemporaneous speech. He was wrong. So are the people who think Google will make us illiterate and shallow, said David Alan Grier in Over the last decade, Google and the Internet have raised research standards, stimulated political argument and discussion of thousands of topics, and given any individual with a computer instant access to an ever-expanding body of human knowledge. Does Google “provide all the information that we will ever need?” Of course not. Does it, on the whole, make us smarter? Sure it does.

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