Google Is Changing Your Brain – But How?

20 years ago, around the time we were kids, the world was a different place. If we wanted to buy something, online shopping wasn’t much of an option, you had to physically travel to a shop to buy your products. Talking to friends could only be done through one of those landline phones about maybe once every weekend. And gathering information? Visiting libraries and gathering the relevant books and then spending hours skimming through pages and topics to find what we’re looking for.

But with the increase of technology and the popularity of Google, the World has taken a turn. Need to buy dresses? Open your browser, hungry? Open the food delivery apps, want to contact a friend? Video call them; you have everything available on the tap of your fingers.

And if you need to search for these features listed above because they’re not available on your phone, Google them. Whatever we have in our mind, we Google it to get our answers. With such a tremendous impact on our lives, the platform is bound to influence our thinking patterns and end up changing our brain. But to what extent are our brains dependent on Google and how this influence has occurred? I’m going to discuss it in this blog.

The Google Effect – Cognitive Offloading & Memory Impact

Cognitive offloading occurs when we rely on any external source to fulfill the demands of a cognitive task. A very basic example of this would be tilting our head to perceive a rotated image. In this example, tilting our head i.e. a physical movement becomes an external source because it’s not part of our cognitive processes.

Another easier example of this phenomenon is the use of post-its and phones to make important lists and the use of calendars to mark important schedules and days. In these tasks, we’re offloading our cognitive load of remembering lists and days by making an external source be responsible for it. Whereas this seems like an efficient way of tracking our schedule and activities, there are some areas where offloading has affected our brain’s processes, and not in a good way.

Several studies have been conducted to show the impact the over-reliance on Google, and the internet on a whole has on our memory. In an experiment done in 2011, students remembered less of the information which they knew they could access later through their computer. In another study, two groups of people were given a set of trivia questions. One group was asked to answer only through the help of their memories, the other was given the choice to use Google. Both groups were then asked a set of easier questions and allowed to look up the answers on Google. The results showed that the group that used the internet in the previous task were more likely to do so again.

Some people believe that with Google, and the internet’s contributions to let us offload cognitively, we become open to more tasks that we previously couldn’t remember to fulfill. But Nicholas Carr, the author of What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, isn’t so positive about the internet’s contribution; stating that by relying on the internet to remember for us, we’re losing the ability to transfer facts from our short-term to long-term memory, an observation quite accurate from a psychological point-of-view. He further states that by going constantly online, we become part of a superficial, fast, and distracting technique of learning that doesn’t really do much good for us in the long run.

Google’s Influence on Focus & Critical Thinking

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have come up with a term known as ‘neuroplasticity’. It’s a phenomenon that refers to all the ways our brain physically restructures its neurons to adapt according to the stimuli you expose it to and the tasks you perform. These stimuli can refer to simple tasks as using post-its for remembering checklists or complex tasks as playing video games, reading books, and even using Google. We’ve already discussed how Google can affect our memory and cognitive skills, and this change in how we remember and recall information can directly have an impact on our ability to think critically and focus on important pieces of information.

I remember the days when it would take me 3 days to finish a book. If it hadn’t been for that ability I wouldn’t have been able to brag about the vast amount of books I’ve read, in English and in Urdu, without losing focus or getting distracted from those intriguing plots. But now, the story is entirely different. I can’t read 3 pages of a book, no matter how interesting, without picking up my phone and scrolling through my social feeds or checking for notifications when I know there shouldn’t be any.

When I researched this, I found (gladly) that I’m not the only one who is suffering through this. Not just us common folk, but renowned literary scholars whose livelihood depends on reading and writing books have reported not being able to focus on reading a book for more than a few minutes. Why is this happening? Google. The plethora of information available on the giant platform has been nothing less than a blessing repeatedly, but this availability has also made us too dependent.

We’re so used to having information presented to us in a precise stream, that we can’t focus on the long and deep plots a book presents in front of us. This dependency to get every information through an external medium of the internet with pre-defined opinions and viewpoints is making us too lazy to form our own opinions and think on our own. And this reliance on Google has resulted in the neuroplasticity process, assigning complex thinking to the platform, making us seek its help whenever we come across a hurdle in our creative process.

Google & Self-Perception

In one study, researchers sought to find how Google affects a person’s sense of self. To do this, the participants were first handed in a questionnaire to test their general cognitive self-esteem. Then, they were asked to answer trivia questions either with or without the help of Google and again fill in the self-esteem questionnaire. It was found that cognitive self-esteem was significantly higher in those who answered with the help of Google. To ensure this self-esteem boost hadn’t occurred due to people answering more right questions, the researchers gave another trivia without the option to use Google. After collecting the answers, they gave people in this group the feedback that most of their answers were right, even if they actually weren’t.

In both groups, participants’ self-esteem was reported to be high, but those who had used the internet for help reported even higher cognitive self-esteem. This shows that people weren’t just happy with the feedback for giving the right answers, rather they also believed that Google is now part of their cognitive toolset. And that’s the case with almost everyone today i.e. people have begun to believe that Google’s algorithms and ability to provide information in mere seconds is part of our own cognition.

With the advanced age of the internet, maybe people know more than our ancestors could even think of, thanks to all the information readily available to our disposal through Google; although some people would argue that relying on an external source of information to brag about our knowledge isn’t exactly smart, but that’s debatable considering even books and scholarly papers are external sources of information., that scholars take help of to boast about their intelligence levels.

Finding answers and research papers with ease on Google is something that makes the platform a need for today’s generation, but an over-reliance is what we need to avoid, because when it comes to a moment we’ve to make quick decisions and get to fast conclusions, Google may not even be available to us. Our brains are more than capable of critical thinking skills, we just need to put it to use instead of making Google responsible for doing our thinking for us.

The takeaway from this entire read is that it’s not a bad thing for our brains to get changed through Google. Neuroplasticity is a natural process, and our brains have been constructed to change constantly; that’s what keeps it fresh and creative. But we need to focus on how, and to what extent this change is affecting our lives negatively. The line between Al and man may be a thin one, but as long as we’re aware of the extent we’re diffusing responsibility with these platforms, we will be able to keep our individual identity intact while also finding solutions to our daily curiosities and queries.

Maha Abdul Rehman

A content writer and a psychology major, I procrastinate for 6 months or write consecutively. And I occasionally watch (see: obsess about) Football.

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