Monday, January 26, 2009

Google is Changing Your Brain

Neurons that fire together, wire together, so if you are reading this post, chances are you already have a Google brain. Opposing viewpoints about whether having a Google brain is a good thing or bad thing are discussed in Discover magazine's Google is Making Us Smarter and Atlantic Monthly's Is Google Making Us Stupid?.

Carl Zimmer argues that Google is making us smarter because our brains are seeking to extend themselves, grabbing onto new tools and "merging" with them. Likening our search activities to a monkey learning how to play with a rake, Zimmer suggests Google becomes our extended mind. To resist Google, Zimmer says, is a bit like Socrates worrying that writing (as opposed to oral history) would make people forgetful and unwise.

Nicholas Carr's perspective on Google is more circumspect. A Google brain himself, he broods on why he is having a hard time reading long arguments or great literature. Is he losing his concentration and his ability to reflect?

Studies of internet search behavior do indeed show the emergence of the Google generation (89% college students prefer the Internet for their start on any research project), but studies looking at the time spent on sites suggest that skimming rather than deep reading is what we do when we search on the Internet.

From a brain-based perspective, our bias is that expertise often comes at a cost. As more brain resources get devoted to particular tasks, others shrink and weaken.

First the PROS: Google learning...

1. Fosters school achievement Studies do show that computer users have an advantage in most core school subjects, home internet use correlated with higher reading achievement scores among low income children. Web proponents argue that high internet use about children promotes literacy because it encourages more reading and writing.
2. Exercises the brain In the figure above, a UCLA study argues Google does a brain good and raises the notion that Google search may help older brains stave off the effects of aging. Excerpt from the CNN article: "Members of the technologically advanced group had more than twice the neural activation than their less experienced counterparts while searching online. Activity occurred in the region of the brain that controls decision-making and complex reasoning..."
3. Promotes Inductive Learning Because Google effortlessly puts a vast warehouse of knowledge at one's fingertips, the Internet is a playground for inductie learning. Inductive learners like mounds of transdisciplinary data, traveling on hyperlinks, noticing incidental information, triggering loose associations - because all this stuff may help them organize what they think is true, common themes and rules. At its best, Google brains are creative, divergent, and flexible inductive thinkers.

But the CONS: Google learning also...

1. Fosters breadth over depth There may be an illusion of wider knowledge, but the skimming and search bias phenomenon are real. As a Google brain, you may more easily get what you're looking for, but spend less time reflecting on opposing opinions and questioning your assumptions and bias (including what you choose to search for). Googling also tends narrow the advantage between exact knowledge and imprecise or recognition knowledge ("I don't know, but I could find it on Google..."). This may be all right in many situations, but hazardous in others (do we really want everyone to be a big picture thinker?).
2. Fosters fast over slow Ala Blink, Google brains are more likely to become intolerant of slow - slow thinking, all the ruminating, and reflection that comes with critical analysis and really processes of any kind that require slowing down (reading great literature, difficult or highly technical books, etc.).
3. Fosters less downtime for the brain Related to this intolerance of slow, our Google brains also are changing to become overly dependent on the rewards of the Internet. As we get used to this frequent self-directed intellectual stimulation, we may find it hard to stop. Not only does this result in less downtime for our brains, but it also may cause complete exhaustion. Many studies have shown how important downtime in the brain is for creative thinking, but also sufficient brain rest is essential for working memory in general, all complex problem solving, and of course, error detection.

So Googler beware! There are thorns with the roses. Will this post change how you Google?

Other references or links:
Computer Users and School
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Brain of the Blogger
Invention at Play
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Daydreaming brain
Internet addiction


  1. My experience as a librarian / school media specialist means that I personally use multiple traditional and automated resources for learning, background reflected in "My Next Questions" at:

    I'll certainly be watching for additional information regarding the statement that:
    "As more brain resources get devoted to particular tasks, others shrink and weaken."

  2. For more on the limitation of brain resources angle, you may want to check out the post below (or and our talk presented at the NAGC, Brains on Fire (

    There was a study that showed that professional trumpet players had brains that activate more brain areas to trumpet music, and violinists activate more brain areas to violin music (the opposite also true - trumpet players responded less to violins, violinists, less to trumpets). To reach the highest levels of expertise, it usually comes at a cost. Expertise in one domain, but weakness in another - especially if there are share resources among the domains.

    Brain morphometric studies showed that Einstein had more natural brain endowment for spatial processing (and less for verbal). That's why his time in the patent office (spatial problem solving through inventions) and spatial thinking were so beneficial in his early and most famous work. We also have talked about Einstein's Fallacy however. Later in life in the academic pressure cooker Einstein began feeling pressure to do more proofs for his work (algebraic). He threw himself into this process - but as a result never had any substantial contributions from it. In many cases, a willful choice to devote one's lifes work and efforts to strengthen one's weakest abilities will be a waste of time. Some remediation may be helpful for getting by, but for the greatest fruition of one's natural abilities, it's better to ride the wave of what one has been gifted with at the start.

  3. Thanks for the additional information.

    This follow-up also adds to the discussion: The Brain: How Google is making us smarter by Carl Zimmer 02.15.2009

    “Humans are natural born cyber-borgs and the Internet is our “giant extended mind.”

  4. I'd love to know what you think of ' A whole New Mind' by Daniel Pink.

  5. We like the book a lot. We often find very bright, very talented right brained learners don't thrive in certain types of classrooms, although they really have Daniel Pink's Whole New Mind. We like the assessment of the changing nature of what will count in terms of neurobiological aptitudes in the new Millenium.

    Many of the new mind traits tilt toward the right hemisphere over left... emotional / social perception / personal memory, conceptual / big picture over detail / deductive reasoning. Some overlap with Google mind, but also some differences (e.g. not necessarily personal touch / social perception etc.).

  6. Very informative! Thanks for the additonal information.. =) Nice blog anyway..

  7. Since practically everyobody who uses the web also uses Google, and since most young people are gamers as well as searchers and web users, I'd be curious to know how one would separate "Google effects" from all the other effects. I suspect someone will dissect this research and show that it's much more an example of correlation than it is of causation.