Is Google Rewiring our Brains?

Stephen DeAngelis

November 14, 2008

The term “Google” has come to represent more than the name of the world’s most popular search engine or the company behind it. Google has become a verb as well as a noun. People are always saying that they “Googled” something on the Internet. Author Nicholas Carr believes that Google is doing more than making information available on the World Wide Web, he believes it is rewiring our brains and he’s not sure he likes the result [“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July/August 2008]. Carr’s article ties together thoughts I’ve published in two recent posts [When does Connectivity Narrow Thinking? and Books Forever]. In the first post, I reported on research that concluded as more journals become available online, fewer articles are being cited in the reference lists of the research papers published within them. In the second post, I talked about Google’s Library Project — an effort to digitize, save, and make available on line millions of books — and the HathiTrust which is a complementary effort to preserve digitized volumes being scanned by Google and others. The thread that ties those posts together is the vast amounts of information being made available on line. Carr’s argument is that all of that available information doesn’t seem to be making us any smarter. He writes:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. 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. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

People used to attribute younger generations’ short attention spans to either overmedication or MTV (with its music videos that cut from one scene to the next in rapid fire order). MTV, the argument goes, was training a new generation to have little patience. It made upcoming generations harder to educate because they had difficulty concentrating in traditional classrooms. To keep them interested in anything, they to be entertained and subjects had to change frequently. Carr is experiencing a similar phenomenon, but attributing it to something quite different from music videos. He continues:

“I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’ reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.) For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. ‘The perfect recall of silicon memory,’ Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, ‘can be an enormous boon to thinking.’ But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And 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. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

In the first of my posts mentioned above — which focused on an article from The Economist — I noted, that the article surmised that when pre-information age researchers were forced to work a little harder at their research (e.g., manually searching through card catalogs and library stacks) they tended to use more of the results of their efforts. Carr argues that serendipity revelations seem to suffer when researchers don’t take the time to ponder about the things they read.

“We still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition. But a recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited ‘a form of skimming activity,’ hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would ‘bounce’ out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

The result, Carr believes, is that researchers miss out on eureka moments when something in an article trips a thought far afield from the subject at hand. As I noted in my blog, such “aha” moments, are often created by what Frans Johansson calls the Medici Effect — an “effect” created when experts from different disciplines come together to discuss and solve cross-sector challenges. Few challenges in life are confined to a single discipline which means the best solutions for those challenges are unlikely to emerge from within a single discipline. If a researcher only skims an article, he or she is unlikely to discover the hidden gems that trigger cross-disciplinary moments of clarity and creativity. Carr, however, is not as disturbed about the lack of meditation as he is about the permanent effect reading patterns have on the brain.

“Reading, explains [Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University], is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.”

In other words, as we change our reading habits we also change our thinking habits. We may not be more stupid, but we certainly are different. Carr continues:

“The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind ‘is very plastic.’ Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. ‘The brain,’ according to Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’ As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our ‘intellectual technologies’—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies.”

The fact that our brain can rewire itself is a good thing. It makes humans more resilient than they otherwise would be. But it also helps explain why those from the “greatest generation” may think differently from “baby boomers” who may think differently from those in “generation X.” Each generation was raised on different technologies and each of those technologies has the potential, according to Carr, to change the way our brains rewire themselves.

“The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating ‘like clockwork.’ Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating ‘like computers.’ But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level. The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV. … The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations.”

New technology, Carr argues, ushers in new rules. A point I have been making since I conceived Enterra Solutions as way to adapt technology to twenty-first century challenges. The idea behind Enterra Solutions was to utilize rules rather than fight them. But to utilize them, you need to know what the rules are. That can be a challenge and it may be one reason that older generations often fight new technologies.

“Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. … Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules. Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.”

If we all worship at the altar of the computer, then the church headquarters, Carr insists, is probably located at Google’s office complex.

“The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the ‘one best method’—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as ‘knowledge work.’ Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church. … Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is ‘a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,’ and it is striving to ‘systematize everything’ it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. … The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop ‘the perfect search engine,’ which it defines as something that ‘understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.’ In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

I’m mindful of a quote by Garrison Keillor that warns us that getting “exactly what you want” may not be exactly what you want! He wrote, “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.” The fact that sometimes we don’t know exactly what we want lets us journey off in directions we might not have otherwise traveled. Those paths sometimes lead to great things and sometimes they lead to dead ends. Regardless of the outcome, the journey is often worth the effort. Carr is worried that such side excursions are being lost.

“[The] easy assumption that we’d all ‘be better off’ if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.”

Carr admits he could just be “a worrywart” lamenting about machines taking over our lives. He writes that such worries have around since recorded history (when people argued that writing itself would replace the desire to think and retain knowledge). He concludes:

“So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”

The world certainly has its share of shallow thinkers. Most of our manmade challenges have been created by men who have not thought through the serious consequences of their actions. Google’s Library Program continues apace with the company recently agreeing to “pay $125 million to settle two copyright lawsuits over its book-scanning efforts [that] would allow it to make millions of out-of-print books available for reading and purchasing online. [The agreement] outlines the framework for a new system that will channel payments from book sales, advertising revenue and other fees to authors and publishers, with Google collecting a cut. The deal goes some way toward drawing a road map for a possible digital future for publishers and authors, who worried that they were losing control over how their works were used online, as the music industry has.” [“Google Settles Suit Over Book-Scanning,” by Miguel Helft and Motoko Rich, New York Times, 28 October 2008] Let’s hope that by making more and more literature available online that Google doesn’t, in fact, make the depths of literary wisdom less accessible because of the way that “surfing” rewires our brains.