Is Google making us dumber? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 31.08.2018
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Science

Is Google making us dumber?

Are you constantly second guessing yourself or do you find it difficult to recall answers to simple trivia questions? DW asks Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and author, is Google the culprit.

DW: Has Google made people dumber over the years?

No, I can't see how this can have happened. The main argument I see in favor of this view is that people used to be able to remember long essays or poems or pieces and recite them easily, as this is what was taught in school. But the ability to retain large blocks of text is not a sign of intelligence, and being unable to do so doesn't make you 'dumb.' Intelligence has many cultural and genetic factors and a lot of time it boils down to how you use information, not how well you remember it. Google provides us with more information than ever, which we're constantly accessing, so there are arguments that it's actually making us smarter, providing us with more info and making our brains work to process it.

Dean Burnett is a Cardiff-based neuroscientist (Private)

Dean Burnett is a Cardiff-based neuroscientist and author

DW: How has Google impacted our attention span?

It's difficult to say anything about this in concrete terms, as Google hasn't been around nearly long enough for us to 'evolve' a neurological response to it, ergo our attentions systems, on the neurophysiological level, are the same as they've ever been. But it does seem to be true that a lot of people don't spend as long focusing on something now as they once did. The human brain typically prioritizes novelty over familiarity when it comes to stimulation and pleasurable activities, and Google allows you to access near infinite novelty at the touch of a button, so people are far more tempted than ever to look for something better than concentrate on what's in front of them. Technically you can apply this to much of the internet though, like Facebook and Twitter, not just Google. 

DW: How are human brains coping with this onslaught of information available on Google?

Most people don't really appreciate just how good our brains are at filtering out information from an intense barrage of it. Our senses alone provide more information to the brain than we can ever hope to process on a minute by minute basis, and the brain has evolved many mechanisms to filter, prioritize and deal with all this. The same could be said of Google's information, but it's a bit different as that's more abstract and cognitive in nature. Unfortunately, the brain's methods of dealing with information surplus aren't always ideal. Confirmation bias, for example, the process where we prioritize information that backs up what we already think/believe and ignore anything that doesn't. This process is pervasive and persistent and clearly underpins much of the difficulty and polarization we see online, particularly in the political sphere.  

DW: Are humans becoming over reliant on Google vis-a-vis their brains?

I can see how this could be an issue. People may well be reaching for Google rather than just trying to work something out for themselves too often, obviously it's going to vary from person to person though. However, information processing like this is only a small part of what our brains do, so it's difficult to see how Google could take precedence over the brain any time soon.

DW: How has google changed you?

Google has revolutionized my life in many ways. I'm a science writer with a rapid turnaround, the ability to instantly check which study said what or whether there's any published data to back up my theories is vital to me and what I do, as well as the ability to find counterarguments and so forth. I'm aware that this is a relatively unusual position though. 

Dean Burnett is a Cardiff-based neuroscientist, lecturer, author and comedian. He is currently employed at the Centre for Medical Education at Cardiff University. He has penned "The Idiot Brain" and "The Happy Brain."

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