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October 16, 2008

Google Makes Us Stupid While Keeping Us Smart

Scientists generally understand that as people age, their brains shrink to a degree.  Many recommend doing “brain exercises” which stimulate brain activity, keeping it sharp.  A recent study concludes that Internet searching stimulates the brain in a better way than reading a book.  Moreover, the benefit seems to work better for those who are experienced with web searching rather than novices.

The study took place at UCLA with a group of 24 ranging in age from 55 to 76.  They were divided into two with half having previous searching experiences with the second half having none.  Those with searching experience showed more complex brain activity (via live MRI scans) compared to the other group.

Compare this result with an article in The Atlantic (July/August 2008), Is Google Making Us Stupid? By Nicholas Carr.  He suggests that the Internet is reducing our attention span and our focus for long-form reading.  That view may not be inconsistent with the UCLA reports of neurological activity.  From the article:

Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And 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.

The study Carr describes analyzes web logs and finds that more people are skimming documents rather than reading them, at least based on the page views.  This may be a reflection of the research process in gathering relevant material rather than conducting the ultimate analysis of that material during that process.  There is also the question of television and other media chopping content into smaller and smaller pieces interrupted by commercial messages.  This may have an impact on the ability of individuals to absorb information in the long form.  Google may be making us stupid on one hand, but using it with some measure of experience and sophistication may be preserving our awareness as we age.

Details about the UCLA study are in the Register, Newsweek, and USAToday.  [MG]

October 16, 2008 | Permalink


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Well that's a bit of a relief, I suppose, that we're not all just getting dumber all the time. At least there's some ebb and flow to the process.

I can relate to the skimming - I feel like I rarely read anything in detail anymore - especially via RSS.

Posted by: Brett Owens | Oct 20, 2008 8:27:13 PM

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