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!.