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Is the Internet Warping Our Brains? Is the Internet Warping Our Brains?

Is the Internet Warping Our Brains?

by Cord Jefferson
July 19, 2011

 

This is your brain on Google.

New research from Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow suggests that Google, your favorite search engine turned email host turned social network, might actually be making you less likely to absorb information. Sparrow's study, "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips," found that people who were confident they could use the internet to access some bit of information in the future were less likely to recall that information themselves. However, they were more likely to recall how to go about accessing the information if necessary. Sparrow calls it "outsourcing data," letting the internet take care of some stuff so we can save our brains for things that can't be Googled, like parents' birthdays and coworkers' names. 

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, says Sparrow. For instance, for years people in the educational community have known that rote learning—that is, forcing children to memorize facts and dates—is a poor way to educate. If that's the case, allowing computers to do some of the memorizing for us might be a way to focus more on the more philosophical aspects of learning.

"Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization," Sparrow told Time.

Of course, while you might think that this research suggests people on the internet are using less of their brains than those not online, you'd be wrong. Back in 2008, the neuroscientist Gary Small discovered the difference in brain activity between a person reading a book and a person searching for information on Google. According to Small, the person searching the internet was using a lot more of their mind than the person simply reading a book. Like Sparrow, Small says he's not willing to say if the difference is bad or good, just that our minds react entirely differently when stimulated by the internet as opposed to other forms of media.

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