Google and the Human Brain

12 Jun

One day, my eight-year-old asks me, “Daddy, who invented the swing set?” I immediately answered that much like Samuel Morse invented Morse code and Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, the swing set was invented by Alexander Swing back in the late 1700s. He didn’t buy this (or the suggestion that it might have been Esmerelda Set) for more than a couple seconds, so I said what I usually say in these situations: “OK, let’s ask the Internet!” Which means to Google it.

The cover of the July/August Atlantic magazine reads, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” It’s a thought I’ve often had as I find us using Google — and the Internet as a whole — like Dumbledore’s Pensieve to hold information outside of ourselves that otherwise would overflow our ability to contain them.

Carr makes a compelling point about how technology structures the way we think:

…what the Net seems to be doing is is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: In a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski...

It’s as if the more we can find out through a simple search, the less we need to know, the less we’re required to discover something unknown, the less need we feel to create something new. It’s true when you’re a part of a network as well — back when I was at the Big Agency, we talked so much of experience from anywhere in the network, we sometimes neglected to train and empower teams to be experts.

Carr says that like mechanical clocks and every other major communications technology, our minds are adapting to the Net. In the process, some things are gained, and some are lost.

In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

But maybe the competition will do us good. Facts are a commodity — junk food for the brain. Thinking, inferring, and imagining are what propels us, and gives each of us something distinct to contribute to our worlds. Carr says that this is where deep reading benefits the brain.

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire … but for the intellectual vibrations those set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation…we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

So, I’ll tell my kids to Google the facts, and to keep reading, and even see if they can discover something new. Because the Net doesn’t have all the answers.

3 Responses to “Google and the Human Brain”

  1. Brian June 12, 2008 at 9:06 pm #

    I seem to remember (although I too lazy at the moment to look it up) and Einstein made a point of not bothering to remember facts that he knew he could easily look up. Of course, they say he couldn’t remember how to tie his shoes…

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Ken. There are facts, and there are ideas. The facts are easily accessed just about anywhere. Good ideas, though, are fewer and further between.

  2. Mike Keliher June 12, 2008 at 10:08 pm #

    Well, the guy you quoted said, “…what the Net seems to be doing is is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”

    One could just as easily argue that this phenomenon (“Google it!”) has given people more capacity for concentration and contemplation. No more am I required to know and remember the mundane details about exactly when and where Event X took place, for example, as those answers are a quick Google search away. Instead, I’m free to focus on remembering, understanding and applying the concepts at play during Event X and their significance.

    Just a thought.

    And I’m pretty sure it was a certain former vice president who invented the swing set. I think he invented Google and global warming, too.

  3. Ken Kadet June 13, 2008 at 9:33 am #

    Thanks for the comments, Brian and Mike! I work with some educators who focus on just the idea you outline, Mike — that what kids need to learn is how to understand and apply concepts — how to think and solve problems — more than they need to remember dates and places.

    However, the Net does contain so much more than just facts … and I think we need to watch ourselves … it’s so easy to skim off the gist of others’ ideas and repeat them in ways that look good on a deadline but are a poor substitute for real learning.

    The July/August issue of The Atlantic is their “Idea Issue” — as always, well worth a read!

    Oh, and here I thought the former vice president you were referring to shared his name with a bird and is now like a big proponent of electronic blackboards with spell-check…

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