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Can Google Kill Neurons and Rewire Your Whole Brain?

A few colleagues and I just had an interesting exchange on the recent article at The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, which basically blamed Google for literally rewiring our brains into more stupid brains (not being able to pay attention, read deep books…) based on a number of personal anecdotes and a little research. Is Google Making Us Stupid

My 2 cents: this is a complex topic and we’d first need to clarify the question, before looking for answers to support or refute it. I found the Atlantic article superficial for a meaningful conversation, with its title and main premise making little sense: Google can not makes us stupid, in the same way that guns don’t make us violent or pens don’t make us good writers.

The author of the article complains about having less of a number of cognitive abilities than he once had. Now, what is the case to make Google the main suspect?
Before we judge something as “good” or “bad” or “stupid” we need to establish:
1) for what? what are the cognitive skills needed now to succeed and to be a contributing citizen and happy person in our age,
2) what are the Pros and Cons of different methods to develop those skills,
3) can those methods complement each other, or do they mutually exclude each other?
We can BOTH be superb book readers and Google users. Simply 2 different tools, and I have found no study that says it is one or the other. brains are not “rewired” as a whole entity, meaning the only thing they could once do was A and now it is B. Once could both speak English and Chinese, two very different language systems! or speak English and be a math genius. Or, speak English and Chinese and be a math genius all at the same time.The New York Times had a related and more insightful article over the weekend: Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?, including this excellent chart on the mental processes required to search for and analyze information online.
We can expect to read more on this very inportant topic for years to come. A few months ago I commented on a great column by David Brooks in the NYT. David Brooks: The Cognitive Age (5/2/08). Quotes:

-“It’s the skills revolution. We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information.”

-“the most important part of informations journey is the last few inches  the space between a persons eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it?”

-“But the cognitive age paradigm emphasizes psychology, culture and pedagogy the specific processes that foster learning.”

Beautifully said. Yes, we are “moving into a more demanding cognitive age.” This is true for the reasons that Brooks aludes to: because of globalization that requires workers to keep their cognitive skills sharp to compete. But, there are other reasons such as current demographic, health and scientific trends. People are living longer which means that they have more opportunities to experience cognitive decline and and will require specific interventions. Huge medical advances over the last 100 years have enabled longevity, improved quality of life overall. But, they have focused more on how to maintain “healthy bodies” than on “healthy brains.”

New tools, such as Google, offer opportunities, and challenges. They don´t make us do things. We do.

Finally, in case anyone wonders, I love reading…good books.

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8 Responses

  1. HNG says:

    Great post! I totally agree with you. It’s the end user that makes the tools tools. If the program was created, would it be considered evil by its own nature if it was not used? No, because it wouldn’t exist if noone was using it.

    All the best,
    H.N.G.

  2. I agree – developing your Googling skill (and there’s a whole book/website on it by Nancy Blachman) does not kill neurons, although I think it could plausibly be argued that, like learning any skill, it DOES rewire your brain. Rand Spiro has been writing on how Web 2.0 is post-Gutenbergian (and how Wikipedia is not) – see http://postgutenberg.typepad.com/

  3. Alvaro says:

    Hello Mistah, as you say, learning any skill does physically alter brain areas involved, but this does not imply it rewires the brain as a whole entity-what the Atlantic article implies-, stopping its abilities to do X, Y, Z (read boooks…) simply because it can now do A, B, C. Otherwise, we couldn´t speak 2 languages at the same time or, even more difficult, deploy different symbolic systems like math and spoken language, or mostly auditory languages (English) and visual/ auditory ones (Chinese).

    Will take a look at the link, thank you for the suggestion.

  4. Marcel says:

    I suspect we are simply losing what we don’t exercise. By avoiding books, our book reading brain “muscles” become less agile and useful.

  5. Grani says:

    Good article thank you. Google is good for research but too much time is no good, as it makes your brain lazy. I have found that what you don’t use you loose. My brain is rewiring from a big tumor operation. For me brain stimulation is of the utmost importance as this will decide the extent of my disability in the future. In closing Google will only rewire your brain if you allow this to happen. If you have a strong brain, only you are in total control 🙂

  6. laura says:

    good post – i’m glad you brought the atlantic article up.

    i had my own take on it (or rather the whole internet information revolution and how we (i..) deal with it) and while it may seem egocentric, here’s the link:

    http://psiqueii.blogspot.com/2008/06/reader.html

  7. Alvaro says:

    Marcel, Grani, good comments.

    Laura, I agree with the impressions you share in your blog (not egocentric at all!), the only favor I would ask is that next time you summarize your key point in your comment, before linking to it, so we don’t need to open a separate page to understand what you are talking about. Thank you!

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