Google Bad for the Brain, Recall, Study Says

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2011-07-15 Print this article Print

The title of this post may well have been: Nicholas Carr Vindicated!

I'm referring of course to the fact that another study has come to the fore showing empirical evidence that Google is bad for our brains, specifically impinging our ability to recall.

If ever there were redemption for Carr's book "The Shallows," which explores how the Web is reshaping our learning and thinking, this study -- "Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips" -- is it.

Conducted by psychologists Betsy Sparrow, of Columbia University; Jenny Liu, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Daniel Wegner, of Harvard, the report details four experiments aimed at exploring whether the awareness of our ability to use Google to quickly find any fact or other bit of information influences the way our brains form memories?

Carr, whose post you should read because it details the experiments, noted:

The answer, they discovered, is yes: "when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it." The findings suggest, the researchers write, "that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology."

Minds like sieves, indeed. What a deep, dark question and answer. I'd also say, based solely on my life experience, yes. It's not that Google is replacing my critical thinking -- far from it.

I sit here for an hour a day thinking about how Google is meeting challenges from rivals such as Facebook with Google+, etc., and wondering how the hell it's going to resolve this Oracle lawsuit, which seems to have Android over a barrel. I don't need Google for that.

But I don't "remember" little things -- trivia -- as much as I used to.

But from childhood through college I had an encyclopedic knowledge of certain sports, such as baseball, football and basketball, culled from years of studying the stats behind player cards. I did the same for wild animals, thanks to that old green safari card box.

With Google I can just search for player stats and animal phyla and species (this is strange now but as a kid I was contemplating a career in zoology before my lack of proficiency in biological and chemical sciences forced me to write).

I don't "remember" things that way because I now know that if I need to recall something I can just Google it. My point is: Why recall that info when it's available at my fingertips?

It's a Catch-22. I think I'm saving valuable storage space, when in reality I'm probably darkening that part of my brain by not using it. It's like a mental atrophy. Carr has been arguing this for a few years now. Carr noted about the study:

If, as this study suggests, the way we form (or fail to form) memories is deeply influenced by the mere existence of external information stores, then we may be entering an era in history in which we will store fewer and fewer memories inside our own brains.

I think he's right, and the consequences could be unfortunate and even dire. It might not be a big deal for me, but what about students in school?

Are they being trained by society -- and Google's online ubiquity -- to go with Google for factoid they need to access to learn and do well in school? Because that would really suck if a high school or college students' first instinct is to Google something their professor advises them to absorb.

It's like any bad habit, smoking or drinking to excess, but hopefully without being addicting. The trick is to train yourself to stay off Google when you want to do some mental heavy lifting.

The question I have is: Who has the will and steely resolve to do this? If the majority of the populace does not, then we are in trouble. |

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