Does the Internet Make Our Brains Lazy?
The internet is one of the most important aspects of modern life. From research to communications, to financial transactions, our entire lives revolve around this digital infrastructure.
The internet is still relatively new and therefore studies are still being performed to see what the effects of this technology are on people, their behavior, and even their brains. You may wonder if the internet is actually making your brain work less.
The idea that the internet is making our brains “lazy” isn’t completely unfounded of course. Why remember facts and figures when Google is always in your pocket? Why learn the layout of New York, when satellite navigation systems can do the heavy lifting for us?
In this article, we’ll review the latest research regarding the internet’s effects on our cognitive abilities.
What Do We Mean by “Lazy?”
To get started, let’s first review what it means when we use the word ‘lazy’ in relation to brain function. No, we aren’t talking about those times your brain tells you to stay on the couch rather than do something productive. We’re talking about your ability to think, recall information, and draw logical conclusions without help.
For example, before the internet, you would read a scientific study and retain important information about the scientists, dates, and the number of participants. The internet lets us skim through such materials only retaining the important parts because you can easily go back to the study for more meticulous details later on if needed.
Although it may seem a little far-fetched, there are plenty of studies that support the theory that the internet is in fact affecting the way our brain works.
What Are the Consequences of a Lazy Brain?
More damaging is the temptation to outsource our thinking to the internet. It’s easy to understand why this seems appealing: there’s an enormous collective intellect out there waiting to be tapped (albeit with a lot of detritus to wade through), but the true extent of this laziness only became apparent with a study from the University of Waterloo.
This study found that participants had a small, but significant urge to doubt their own knowledge and confirm facts on the internet when given the opportunity to double-check.
Wanting to fact-check something before you make a fool of yourself is one thing, but there’s also some evidence to suggest that we’re just less likely to bother making the effort to remember stuff if we know it’s all stored for us elsewhere in the cloud, or on our devices.
This isn’t a conscious choice, but, on some level, our brains just don’t bother committing things to memory in the same way.
There are other less mechanical and more inherently optimistic theories for this, though. A 2011 University of Wisconsin study found that participants asked to type 40 facts were more likely to remember the pieces of trivia when told that the document would be deleted at the end of the test.
In other words, the brain is actually optimizing itself by outsourcing memories, rather than weakening. Indeed, a second part of the study revealed that participants were more likely to remember the location of the computer folder containing the facts, rather than the facts themselves. Depressing, but efficient.
Of course, there’s a school of thought that says this is just an extension of what we’ve always done – a form of transactive memory, where groups share memories. “I don’t need to remember my cousins’ birthdays, because my husband knows them” – that kind of thing.
The psychologist who came up with the transactive memory hypothesis in 1985, Daniel Wegner, told Harvard Magazine that he believes that the internet has become an extended – and particularly knowledgable – part of this collective social memory: “We become part of the internet in a way. We become part of the system and we end up trusting it.”
That’s fine for hard facts that you’ve submitted yourself – when your cousin’s birthday is on a Google calendar, for example – but what about when you’re relying on other people’s knowledge? In theory, we’ve got a healthy level of distrust for what the internet tells us, with a whopping 98% of people distrusting the internet as a source of information according to one 2012 survey, but we know that even information we instinctively distrust can make us doubt ourselves.
Cognitive offloading is similar to Digital Amnesia in that our brains are effectively using the internet as an external hard drive. This means that you simply aren’t storing as much data in your brain as you could.
For example, when you need to remember a recipe you could memorize each ingredient and the cooking instructions. But, with the internet so close at hand, there’s no need to do this. You’ve bookmarked the recipe and so you aren’t remembering the details or how to make it.
In one 2016 study, those who used the internet to answer simple questions performed poorly in other stages of the study where they did not use the internet. This could indicate that using the internet is making our brains lazy. In theory, those of us who use the internet more frequently to answer questions have reduced problem-solving abilities.
This is similar to another study that indicates people were less likely to recall the details of exhibits in a museum if they had a digital camera for pictures.
The fears of internet-related cognitive offloading are that people who use the internet more frequently do not trust their own brains and therefore rely on external influences for even the most basic knowledge.
Can You Concentrate?
Then there’s concentration: plenty has been written about the internet’s impact on our ability to avoid distractions and concentrate, but much of it is anecdotal. In a broader sense, other factors could be just as responsible for our collective lack of focus.
The internet helps us do one thing above all else; save time. Unfortunately, it also helps us to multi-task in such a way that no single task is getting our full attention. Yet, we are so used to doing multiple things at one time (watching TV and writing a term paper for example) that we don’t learn as much as we could.
One particularly fascinating study found that members of the Namibian Himba tribe who had recently moved to urban settlements had far weaker levels of concentration than their contemporaries who had maintained their traditional rural existence.
Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, reckons that much of this can be undone by spending more time off the internet, and the plasticity of our brains suggests that should have an impact. But in a society that relies so much on being connected, is there really any advantage to fighting the way our brains have adapted to our digital lives, other than flimsy nostalgia?
Maybe not, although as with almost everything with the brain, an enormous amount is left unknown, even if using the web as additional memory storage seems fine and dandy. “Nobody knows now what the effects are of these tools on logical thinking,” Wegner reminds us.