Have you heard about the Google Brain project? It’s a deep research effort, planned by Google, to successfully create the world’s most accurate model of the human brain. However, the company’s own search engine may be influencing our brains in a way they never anticipated before. While the availability of the internet has led to what many refer to as the “information age,” where with a few clicks you can easily find yourself bombarded with a greater body of trivia than you could ever hope to digest about any given subject, this accumulation of the world’s knowledge sitting on your iPhone could have an adverse effect.
It has been said that when writing was first taught in Ancient Greece, the fabled Socrates decried writing as “the death of learning,” that no longer would there be a need for bards like Homer to commit epic stories to memory when everyone has the ability to read them in book form. Perhaps the same could be said of the internet — a well made up of every piece of literature ever written, every bit of data ever recorded, every song lyric, at our fingertips could mean the end of committing facts to memory.
A recent study by Erik Fransen suggests something even more dismal: the way that people have turned internet usage into a daily ritual. Checking Facebook and Twitter while instant messaging and browsing mindlessly, may affect the brain’s ability to perform routine tasks, leading to problems down the line with processing information, as high media multitaskers were shown to do, losing spatial memory as they clicked between messages and windows, and had difficulty focusing on a single task as their brains worked to keep up.
When engaging in internet searches, the brain also engages working memory, known as short-term memory, which accounts for the decline in committing facts to memory. The same mechanism engaged while web-surfing and instant messaging is engaged during casual conversations with people, the reason why we ask the same questions day to day but rarely remember the finer details about what our friends do at work or the name of their shift supervisor. Consequently, we rarely learn anything for the long term when looking up facts on Google.
However, not all may be lost. While people are committing less to memory, at least in part due to the internet, they are using internet guides like Google or Siri as a platform of sorts to bounce ideas off of, the equivalent of how you already delegate tasks to your friends. It seems then that the brain responds to facts we search on the internet, and then filters how much it already knows about a subject as we search, deciding if there’s someone to turn to who already knows more than we do.
At the same time, brain scans have shown that more activity occurs in regions of the brain when we search on the internet than when reading a book, as we take in and process the information found during searches. For seniors, it may slow the processes of aging to actively use the internet, while also acting as a platform to engage with for problem solving. Perhaps in the near future then, rather than rote memory, internet capabilities will allow for more active collaboration between people in solving problems and creating solutions and works of art — allowing for more than one person to contribute ideas at a time and analyze ideas and memories the internet presents, opening up a myriad of possibilities for learning.