The internet has changed the way almost everything works, from TV to banking to ordering food — so why wouldn't it also change your brain? According to a new study, the internet changes the way our brains store information — namely, the aren't storing as much. Furthermore, the more you use the internet, the worse it gets. But it might not actually be as bad as it sounds; indeed, while the internet might be changing how we store information, it's also changing how we process it in some beneficial ways.
In a new study, researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign conducted a series of experiments to test how participants' internet use might affect their memory. Each experiment had the same basic set-up: Participants were asked a series of trivia questions, with some being told not to use the internet, while others were told to look up the answers using Google, even if they thought they knew the correct answer. Then, after this initial round of questions, participants were asked another series of much easier questions where all were given the option of using Google. (That is, they could use it if they felt like it, but didn't have to if they didn't.)
Researchers used slight variations on this set-up to try to determine what made participants more likely to use Google during the second phase of the experiment, and whether they were more or less likely to be able to answer the questions without Google, or if they were only using it to check their answers.
Overall, researchers found that participants who were instructed to look answers up online during the first phase of the experiment were more likely to use Google during the second phase. Additionally, people who used the internet in the first phase were much quicker to reach for Google than those who had to figure things out for themselves the first time around.
All of which implies that using the internet for information makes you more dependent on it to remember things — and the more you use it, the less likely your brain is to store information for yourself.
Despite what it sounds like, this isn't necessarily a sign that humans are getting dumber, though, or that our brains are deteriorating. On the contrary, our brains are actually getting more efficient through what researchers call "cognitive offloading" — aka utilizing things like the internet to enhance your memory, instead of trying to remember everything yourself.
And, as researchers point out in the study, in the modern age, trying to remember everything yourself probably isn't the best use of your gray matter. "Functions that used to be accomplished solely in our heads are now accomplished with the help of technology," they write. "We no longer need to remember phone numbers, directions, birthdays, or medical information; the value of accumulating a vast knowledge base to ensure access to some specific bit of knowledge has never been less."
Thus, the way our brains approach certain information has changed. Instead of trying to remember facts and figures, we remember where we can access that information online. Our brains still have access to the same information, but it is less cognitively taxing.
There are potential downsides. For instance, most jobs require you to make creative use of a given knowledge base, taking what you know and making decisions based on it. In order to be good at that, you need to be genuinely familiar with the subject matter, and that's hard if you just looked it up five minutes ago. In other words, it is definitely possible to become too reliant on cognitive outsourcing.
But on the other hand, the internet is often better at producing accurate information than our brains are. "When accuracy is paramount, and when the internet is available and its use is contextually appropriate, one might often be better off relying on the Internet than not," the researchers explain.
There are good things and bad things about this phenomenon, but the takeaway message seems to be that we don't need wires to connect the human brain to the internet like something out of science fiction; our brains are becoming more and more intertwined with the online world all on their own by simply relying on the Internet to perform more and more cognitive functions.
The future is already here.
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