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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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