How Technology Is Changing Our Brains

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Constantly using Google to look up facts is changing the way our brains work. Here we take a look at what that might lead to.

I saw Larry Page, Google CEO, on Charlie Rose recently and, in the interview, Larry spoke briefly of the impact of "additionality."

What Is Additionality?

Additionality is the notional measurement of an intervention compared to a baseline, or doing nothing. The intervention can be based on either technology or economics.

In short, technological additionality refers to the total value of a technological innovation. For example, one might point to the "space race," which, in addition to allowing Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon, brought us miniaturization (the microprocessor) and the Internet (The Internet itself, of course, brought (and continues to bring) us much more than was originally envisioned). The other side of this is what intelligence services call "blowback," or the unintended negative consequences that occur as a result of an action, such as the Taliban using U.S.-manufactured weapons against the United States, weapons that the U.S. gave to Afghan insurgents fighting the Soviets years before.

Google and the Intermind

One impact of Google’s search engine (the innovation that all of Google is founded on) may be viewed as both positive additionality and blowback according to the late Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward in their Scientific American article "How Google Is Changing Your Brain," although they use neither of these terms. Based on a study done at Harvard University, they write:

    "Using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of our cognitive tool set. A search result was recalled not as a date or name lifted from a Web page but as a product of what resided inside the study participants’ own memories, allowing them to effectively take credit for knowing things that were a product of Google’s search algorithms. The psychological impact of splitting our memories equally between the Internet and the brain’s gray matter points to a lingering irony. The advent of the ‘information age’ seems to have created a generation of people who feel that they know more than ever before – while their reliance on the Internet means that they may know even less about the world around them."

Although one can read negativity into the above comment, they conclude the article on a very positive note, writing:

    "Yet perhaps as we become parts of the ‘Intermind,’ we will also develop a new intelligence, one that is no longer anchored in the local memories that are housed only in our own brains. As we are freed from the necessity of remembering facts, we may be able as individuals to use our newly available mental resources for ambitious undertakings. And perhaps the evolving Intermind can bring together the creativity of the individual human mind with the Internet’s breadth of knowledge to create a better world – and fix some of the messes we have made so far.

    "As advances in computation and data transfer blur the lines between mind and machine, we may transcend some of the limits on memory and thought imposed by the shortcomings of human cognition. But this shift does not mean that we are in danger of losing our own identity. We are simply merging the self with something greater, forming a transactive partnership not just with other humans but with an information source more powerful than any the world has ever seen."

Intermind and Noosphere

Wow! This reference to an "intermind" brings to mind the "noosphere," as postulated by the Jesuit philosopher/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Wikipedia’s explanation of Teilhard’s theory provides the following:

    "For Teilhard, the noosphere emerges through and is constituted by the interaction of human minds. The noosphere has grown in step with the organization of the human mass in relation to itself as it populates the Earth. As mankind organizes itself in more complex social networks, the higher the noosphere will grow in awareness. This concept extends Teilhard’s Law of Complexity/Consciousness, the law describing the nature of evolution in the universe. Teilhard argued the noosphere is growing toward an even greater integration and unification, culminating in the Omega Point – an apex of thought/consciousness – which he saw as the goal of history."

A number of modern thinkers such as Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow and Jennifer Cobb, author of the 1998 book "Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World"and of the must-read Wired Magazine article, "A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain" have seen Teilhard’s vision as a forerunner of the Internet.

While it is not clear whether Wegner and Ward’s, or Cobb’s or Barlow’s views of the continued evolution of the Internet are totally on target, it does seem clear that, according to experts, the Internet is changing the makeup of our brains. In his book, "From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet," author John Naughton compares the changes to our brains brought on by the Internet with movement from an oral learning method to a reading one as a result of the development of the printing press. In his analysis, he quotes neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s point that human beings only invented reading a few thousand years ago and that this invention actually changed the way our brains are organized, which in turn altered the way our species evolved.

Where We’re Going

I have often written about how technology has changed the world around us, often "under our radar" until something directly affects us. But technology is also changing the very nature of humanity. Whether we call it the intermind or the noosphere, we seem to be evolving toward something. I hope that we ensure that this evolution does not take us to a coldly rational group mindset that no longer includes the human virtues we treasure. If we can combine these virtues with greatly enhanced group intelligence, we can, as Wegner and Ward write, "fix some of the set of messes we have made so far." If not, who knows?


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…