Is Google Making Us Smarter?

It depends on how you use the web, and how you define “smarter.”

The internet was abuzz this summer over Nicholas Carr‘s eloquent argument in The Atlantic that the internet is eroding our ability to read long and complex texts (if you agree, but can’t make it through to the end of his 4,200-word essay, chalk it up to confirmation bias).

Now, a new study finds that skilled, thoughtful web surfing can actually build cognitive skills and may delay the onset of dementia in older users.

The findings of the study, by U.C.L.A. memory specialist Gary Small, do not necessarily refute Carr’s argument.

Small’s team found that experienced web users experience increased stimulation in the regions of their brains that handle complex reasoning and decision making. The activity was more widespread than when the same subjects were reading a book, or when inexperienced web users surfed the internet.

In other words, being able to tease out useful information from all the chaff on the internet can be as intellectually demanding a task as completing a crossword puzzle.

But is puzzle solving the same kind of “smartness” as the “smartness” that comes from reading a book?


Daz

Here is one way that Google can make people dumber:

I recently had an extended e-conversation, with a teacher in a school for gifted children, about her teaching methods. (She taught 4th grade.)

She said she greatly stressed clear and logical thinking, which sounded fine to me.

"And what do you teach in the way of factual knowledge?", I asked.

She said, "That's what Google's for -- you can find practically anything on Google."

I asked if she taught at least a basic framework of knowledge, on which to hang additional facts, and she said she didn't think that was important.

This struck me as very unfortunate, and I pitied the students who had her for a teacher.

Praveen

I have a different take on this issue. Yes, I do agree that Google makes us smarter, skillful. Knowledge can be dangerous too. Easy step-by-step ways to make bombs, easy pornographic access, drug cocktails etc., these are the kind of stuff which are better served through restrictions.

It is not what Google offers, but how we use what it offers thats more important.

-Posted by Praveen

Naphtali B

Internet usage and information obtained by it are entirely different from that of a book or lengthy essay. The ability to focus for more than one minute is a fleating art nowadays, that's why commercials are at most one minute long because the average person can't really focus on an idea for longer. We need instant everything constantly, fast food, ultra high speed internet and if it took an extra few minutes would it kill us?! It might, because we can't remain tuned in. That knowledge which comes from hours of reading subsumes entire ideas and not just in the abridged 'cliff notes' version.

BUt honestly I myself skipped over most of the responses on this blog that were too long and would take more than a minute to read. I have succomed

steve pesce

I love that it's a short blog that's talking about eroding our ability to read long and complex texts.

gone native

I started regularly using the internet interactively and on discussion boards 12-13 years ago. Although I am not a web wizard, I am probably in the the upper 10 percent of women talking on the web for as long as I have been.

I used to pride myself on finding answers even before there was a google. Whatever happened to northernlights search? I found so many answers with them. Anyway, it gets tiring and redundant. And yea, so what! you can find answers.

Now I decided to take musical instruments instruction with no book, no reading, just doing as the teacher does. Also, we use sounds and no numbers for counting beats, unless we are totally clueless and he has to resort to that. It is fascinating, and I wonder if book and learn-ed people would get frustrated in such a class and be not so smart wanting numbers and proper instructional methods.

Brooke

I'd love to see what would happen if you repeated the experiment, but substituted "Choose Your Own Adventure" books for the books used in the study. They might be the best way to approximate the behavior of people on the web. They weren't the best stories, but I remember reading them as a child and running out of fingers to hold the page of my most recent choices.

/e/

Googling brought up UCLA’s news item at and for the joint PR release from UCLA and the publisher, the “American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,” both of which give study details.

I’m still trying to get my brain around how minimal the study was: there were “24 normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76” and “the groups were similar in age, gender and education.” So there were 2 groups of 12 normal volunteers who were between 55 and 76 with half in each group being Internet savvy and the other half not. I guess the study should get credit for finding the volunteers.

Dixon

Google allows us to achieve what I call collective-subconscious. Your traditional subconscious holds information such as you phone number. You were not consciously thinking of it until I mentioned it and now you can recall it from the depths of your brain and hold it in your conscious brain. But, you had to memorize it before it became part of your subconscious.

The collective-subconscious is similar except that rather than recalling information which you yourself have memorized you bring information into your consciousness that others have documented or otherwise communicated to you. So, you do not have to compare the circumference of a circle to it's radius to know that the ratio is 3.14159.

The Internet allows our collective subconscious to grow at an accelerated pace. A quick search lets you know that pi was approximated as 3 1/4 by the Babylonians 4,000 years ago. Google will translate web-pages for you so that your collective sub-conscious now includes multiple languages. Wikipeadia will give you the definition of a CDS quicker than an MBA.

My take on how the internet makes us smarter is that, traditionally, we would consider someone with a subconscious powerful enough to win at Jeopardy to be smart. Almost anyone could figure out the questions to Jeopardy using google. So, google may not make you smarter but I think is definitely makes us smarter.

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MS

They are merely different forms of smartness. And people put more time into developing the kind of smarts that pay off, and in our world day, learning to harness the huge amounts of information on the web is more useful than reading, say, Moby Dick.

Kirilius

I consider myself a skilled and experienced Internet "power" user and here are my thoughts on the subject:

I agree that being able to navigate through the myriad of web-pages and getting useful information out of the tons of empty shell-pages requires a lot of skill. That skill comes as a result of a challenge that almost did not exist in pre-Internet times.

On the other hand I found something that I developed over the recent years. Before if I needed some kind of factual knowledge, I would find a book and read about it. Now if I want the same kind of information I am happy if I KNOW WHERE TO FIND it instead of actually reading it. That's the difference: unless something absolutely necessary to be read it does not get read nowadays. We store a link to it an use the link only if we really need it.

grok

Not mentioned is the exposure to a much much wider variety of styles and, frankly, quality. I often don't read all the way through much of the web, not because of any attention deficit, but because a lot more of it is bad, even maddeningly bad. Some of it is repetitive, also.

ryan

for many applications, having a resource that lets me get right to the information i'm looking for (and quickly gather the related information) is far better than sources that require long, painful trudging through uninteresting, unimportant muck. the way the internet facilitates finding connections and understanding surrounding context is extremely useful. i tend to think this is a better way to learn which requires a different, more active kind of attention. if attention span merely means a person's tolerance for trudging in intellectual muck, then good ridden. i don't mind a future where people are more aware of their world and use their time more efficiently.

Norrin Radd

It really depends. One thing that I noticed: With some years of using the web, I have managed to get information way quicker. Since there is so much information out there, I've trained myself to filter out important information way faster than I used to, just getting the main information without really reading the text (I can read it thoroughly if it seems interesting anyway).

I also found out that, while it's easy for me to get distracted by clicking links that lead me to referenced materials, and clicking links there again, it's also easy to refocus on the original material once I've closed all the other browser tabs.

However, I can easily get distracted when working on a computer. Sometimes I am so comitted to the stuff that I'm doing that it starts to get automated and I even forget about to eat. That's rare, though, much more often I find myself switching program windows and surfing yet another site on the internet. That's why I like to read longer texts as hardcopy or on a platform where switching is not that easy (my mobile phone, for example, although that's not quite as comfortable).

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priya

it's not the internet that makes us 'dumber', but the sort of things we use it for that do.

now a lot of people are used to using the internet for social networking, chat, and other such activities that require short attention span. And little else. And so it's little wonder that whenever they log on to the Net they have short attention spans - they are used to using Internet tools for short spans of time.

Whereas, there are also people who are used to using the Net for reading, for discovering new papers and articles, for downloading free ebooks... the Net has helped such people thrive.

It's not the fault of the Internet that the latter is in a minority.

Kai

Like Gary said, I also found Freakonomics on the net and I also have read a lot on the net from mainly forums. Now I am pretty young but very interested in economics and politics, so the net really has helped it would seem by having many dedicated forums on the subject. It's very hard to talk to your friends about subjects which they probably don't know much about, and so forums are great for reading something new and being able to communicate with others that are also interested in that certain subject. I also wish to add that I believe that my writing skills have also greatly increased due to "forum-ing" although I wouldn't call myself a good writer.

Paul K

I think web surfing causes more À la carte reading vs. long essays. This is because it allows you to explore information, content, and references instantly. When you read an essay in a book, how often you do go get the references and read them too? Essays on the web just have a link to a reference and often do not devote hundreds of words to paraphrasing the reference. I think web essays tend to be more succinct as a result of that and as a result of people wanting more focused thought.

Think of something like a new law being discussed: how many people read all 100 pages? Most of us always have relied on newspapers and other news media to summarize it. Now, we can get many different summaries with different opinions attached - that is more how people see web information access.

This blog is a good example: you have a few hundred words on something and link to the deeper article, study, essay, or set of such. This allows someone to choose how far to drill down based on their interest.

The pre-web equivalent was magazines like Scientific American - shorter pithier articles summarizing massive amounts of detailed information produced for and by those who are in that specialty.

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Gary

I find that reading on the internet has encouraged me to read more off the net. Heck, I found Freakonomics on the net, and have amassed quite a pile of recommended reading from the bloggers and comments here.

Nate C.

I agree with this. The only way I got through four years of reading lengthy and complex PDFs of academic essays during college was to download them all, and then turn off my wireless internet to prevent distraction.

Steph

The problem is that we aren't teaching people how to tease out the wheat from the chaff. My generation in particular (I'm 25) is being bombarded with all types of new media, niche media, etc. but media literacy is a subject that's sorely lacking in our educational system. We teach kids how to use the internet, but we aren't teaching them how to look critically at what information is being offered and how it is presented, whether it be online, in a news broadcast, or in a magazine. If we want to use the wealth of resources that technology offers to become smarter, we need to start developing those skills.

Lyndsey

I'd like to know how these theories test out using historically accepted measures of intelligence or cognitive skill like an IQ, DAS, NNAT, SAT, or state administered basic skills test. Although I know many (most... ok, ALL) of these measures are disputed for relevancy, it's more of a control variable than anything else - we know how the average american performs on this test. Might reveal something interesting for discussion - likely not something difinitive about intelligence, but something interesting nevertheless.

Not that I'd read the entirety of the results anyway. That stuff's too long ;)