What does Google, the Internet Deity, do to our brains?

How does our capacity for memory-making look like now that we have Google?

We do not just use Google; we have surrendered to Google. When was the last time you resisted the urge to go online to search for an answer to a nagging question you had? Google is so omnipresent that we have to have holidays that we declare to ourselves as offline and thus, Google-free.

When we go to Google, we seem to approach that Internet deity with a shadow smugness that we know the answer and have just forgotten it, like a misplaced object we were not conscious of keeping so we don’t remember where to retrieve it. We think we are still the masters of our own memory and Google is just a check or a prod – a confirmation that we are right or just the ever-ready reminder of where we kept it.

But are we still really the Indiana Joneses of our own memory-making and memory-keeping adventures? Do we really still possess the same hunting spirit we had before Google, before algorithms decided which paths could lead to answers to our myriad and multi-leveled searches? Remember that this same hunting spirit for answers is what was responsible for everything before computers. In fact, it was the same hunting spirit that is responsible for the advent of computers.

I was on my own little personal hunt for answers to this when I came across a recent study that taking photos helps us remember visual things more but auditory items less. This contradicted a previous study that people who take selfies more, remember less than people who just focused without cameras or those who took cameras but zoomed in on details. But looking at the studies more closely, I found that crucial in both studies was “focus” since those who did not take actual photographs in the former study but instead took “mental shots” were still able to remember more than those who did not. Both studies I think highlight that you cannot just snap photos but have to attend to the moment to make it part of your memories – and thus, who you are.

The discussions on memories made by photographs mentioned that cameras only came into existence 200 years ago and the Big Bang of phone camera use happened only in the last 15 years. Yet, look at how much reliance we have on the “photos” in our “phones”. Now think of how much more extensive Google is in terms of our memory-making/selecting/storing/retrieving. It is not just about images with Google but all kinds of information and ways to make sense of information. It is now, as the narrator in a TV documentary I saw recently, called it – the modern day Oracle. With Google, you seek and you will find. But is this phenomenal ease leading us to hallelujahs in terms of better memory capacity and processing. In other words, is it leading us to better “knowing” and its more elusive twin, “understanding”?

A study in 2011 has essentially found that with Google, we have been losing the capacity to remember what and just remember where we found the information. An example that was cited was when people were asked how many flags would have only one color, how many people thought about flags or went online right away? And once the information was accessed, how many really remembered the answer and how many just remembered that they found it online and could find it out again anyway?

In 4 experiments in the study, the case was clear that people would always remember that they found the knowledge online than what the knowledge was. This means that our brains have evolved to adapt to Google – with the ease of a search, and the endless connections of data with other data at the tip of our fingertips.

We now treat Google now as another storage of “stuff” we can access, and therefore “our own” and that we can always find what we are looking for. Google makes our brains place a lot more importance to “where” than “what” the answer is. Google to us, is now part of our own brains. Our old memory networks of oral histories and actual imprinting on our own memories of knowledge – like committing a great poem or a funny joke to memory are slowly being eroded by our transactions with Google, the digital deity.

Nobody hates Google more than a teacher in a class who just asked a question and the students are verbally and mentally silent because they are not allowed to go online right there. Learning or unlearning, to be genuine, involves a risk of daring to say/think what YOU think and being taken up on it by another human, right or wrong or tentative your answer may be. However, you cannot outsource that risk to Google as your main enterprise of living, ready and willing though Google may seem and still lay claim to your own mind.

I love Google and cannot do without it anymore. It is a reliable “portal” that is always open when I want to hunt for clues to my many searches. But the study revealed that that it has become more than a tool to us and it has taken over our memory-making because we have volunteered ourselves to it. I think even Google will still agree that “I think, therefore I am” should still reign over “I Google, therefore I am” if you want to be Captain of your ship and Master of your soul. – Rappler.com