Your Brain on Google

According to Alva Noe, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, Google is not making us stupid.  Good news, even though I wasn’t worried until I saw his article.

Noe is the author of, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.

He refers to results of a Columbia University study that found we are more likely to remember things we cannot find online than things we can.  The study caused some concern, but Noe says this is unwarranted and links to a blog with this quote from Einstein:  “Never memorize something that you can look up.”

Researchers are not picking on Google in particular but cite it because the phrase, “Google effect” has come to stand for the way many new technologies influence us.  Noe suggests that they are not qualitatively different from other tools we use to navigate the world and make sense of it:  “We use landmarks and street signs to find our way around; arithmetical notation makes it possible for us to calculate with big numbers; we wear wrist watches so that we can know the time without needing to know the time; and we build libraries so that we have access to what we need to know, when we need to know it.”

My predisposition to agree with Noe is based on Sherlock Holmes.  Conan Doyle’s famous detective told Watson he could not afford to fill his mind with information not relevant to his profession.  As a result, he could identify 37 varieties of cigarette ash but knew almost nothing about the solar system.

Beyond my lifelong fascination with Holmes, several things leap to mind.  I really don’t use the internet to remember things – I use it to find things.  Also, memory and intelligence are not the same.  If they were, I’m sure post-it-notes would have shaved several points off my IQ.

Though I don’t worry about Google and memory, Noe adds a link for further reading that raises more serious concerns.  In August, 2008, Nicholas Carr published an article in The Atlantic, called, “Is Google Making Us Stupid:  What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.”

Carr is the author of, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google.

If nothing else, the internet is changing our brains, says Carr:  “I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.

Carr cites the work of Marshall McLuhan, who in the ’60’s observed that media not only supply the content of thought, but shape the process of thought.  Carr says, “what the Net seems to be doing 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.”

Before anyone panics, we should note that Carr is primarily talking about the fight “to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”  An acquaintance of his says he can’t read War and Peace anymore.  I couldn’t get through it even once.  Carr emphasizes intelligence as a series of very cerebral pursuits.  I suspect he and I have different ideas of “meditation and contemplation:”  I don’t think he’s talking of sitting meditation, something I’ve always used to counterbalance intellectual activity, and one I do not find impacted by time spent online.  Watching a violent movie may impact my ability to meditate, but so far, Google does not.  Maybe I’m in denial, but these concerns are fairly low on my hierarchy of worries.

Carr cites another concern that comes from the mouths of the founders of Google:  Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains.  More than once, I’ve chatted with friends about how “they” will jack into our brains when the day comes:  USB?  Firewire?  The Matrix ruined my ability to take such a fantasies literally.


Serious research is underway, studying what is good and bad about our reliance on the internet.  Parallel hopes and concerns met Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.  From the distance of centuries, we can see how it affected our brains.  No one in a literate culture has the memory of the tribal Griot in Alex Haley’s, Roots, or the ancient Homeric poets, but we have to ask, along with Einstein, how much should we care?  Is that kind of memory central to intelligence?  Does it’s loss have a negative human destiny?

The internet seems every bit as profound a change as the invention of printing, and it’s likely to take a long time for the dust to settle so that objective evaluations can occur.  Hopefully, as with printing, the good will outweigh the bad.


Everyone who has made it through this post should feel good about their ability to concentrate.  Having come to the end, I’m going to go for a walk – one of those those vitamin C for the brain type strategies that can hopefully inoculate me even against the dangers of Google!.

3 thoughts on “Your Brain on Google

  1. I think the primary difference in our behavior that the internet is causing is with our ability to delay gratification. In a world where I can jump online and find the answer to nearly anything almost instantly, why should I ever have to wait for anything?

    This is kind of a weird analogy, but look at the NFL and specifically the quarterback position. Years ago if a quarterback was selected early in the NFL draft he would often wait a couple of years before starting a game. Now rookie quarterbacks are often thrown in as the starter in their first year, and if they struggle at all that first season (which they almost invariably do) you get analysts who start asking if they’re a bust as a high draft pick.

    It also expands to nearly every other aspect of our lives, people seem to be getting more and more impatient. We want results but aren’t willing to put in the work to get them.


    • Instant gratification is a big effect of the internet; I see it in play every time I download an ebook. There are other reasons of course, like the fact that I seldom read a mystery more than once so an ebook makes sense, but I notice that when I do order a physical book, the 3-5 days shipping seems painfully slow.

      I don’t think this a simple issue at all, and that’s one reason I like your NFL analogy. It suggests that the web is a much a *symptom* of a larger trend, as it is a cause. Parallel to your example are complaints I’ve heard from educators about pro teams recruiting students right out of high school. For any number of reasons, college would benefit most of the athletes, but not every 18 year old with the offer of a lucrative contract is going to agree. Instant gratification for them as well as millions of TV viewers, but not a result of the internet.

      There are many things I love about this new technology, but it is good to remember that like many previous inventions, when something is initially touted as “a labor savings device” – watch out!


  2. I agree. the good will eventually outweigh the bad. To say the internet is bad is the same to say the telephone is bad, or electricity, or TV. The telephone has saved trillions of lives, not to mention kept nuclear families tied. Electricity has, well, how would you like to sit around a campfire all night keeping thieves and wolves at bay? TV has the Film & Arts channel, HBO series, art films, the college channel. The list of analogies can go on and on. The people who say the net has shortened our our attention spans are excuse makers and losers. Our attention spans are only as short as we allow them to be. Set aside an hour every day just to read your currently favorite book, preferably before you go to sleep, in bed. You’ll be surprised on how quickly your mind adapts or readapts to long reading.


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