Is the information age ruining your brain?
I used to be a go-to source for questions like “What’s that song that goes ______?” The cruel, all-knowing internet replaced me. Today, the answers to just about all of life’s minor, non-existential questions are waiting right on our desks, in our pockets, and in our iMeet Central workspaces.
So… what’s the point of saving Millard Fillmore’s inauguration date or your company’s PTO policy to your permanent memory when you can just look it up as needed? If we stop trying to retain that kind of information, how is it affecting our brains?
A while back, my colleague Craig pointed me to a provocative article from Saima Noreen. In it, Noreen acknowledges a study indicating that a vast majority of consumers rely on technology for things they would have once remembered independently (phone numbers and such).
“But before we mourn this apparent loss of memory, more recent studies suggest that we may be adapting,” Noreen writes. She cites another study that indicates that while I may struggle to recall the details of that study, secure in my knowledge I will be able to re-access it in the cloud at any time, I am rather exceptional at remembering where to find that information if I need it.
“…Saving information on a computer not only changes how our brains interact with it, but also makes it easier to learn new information,” she says. Besieged by information and stimulation, our brains must be ruthless about retention. Instead of hording your facts in a silo, drop your knowledge in the cloud… and leave it there, freeing up your brain to tackle new challenges.
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This, I would like to think, is why my typical response to questions like “How many website visitors did we get in Q3 of last year?” is “I’ll have to check.” That kind of data, which may be requested only once or twice in your entire life (if that), is essentially clutter that could be better stored elsewhere.
Now if I could just get these Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics out of my head.
Some are pretty rosy about what the future holds. “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,” wrote Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward for Scientific American. “And perhaps the evolving Inter-mind 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 set of messes we have made so far.”
Others suggest that this (over)reliance on technology can lead to addiction, autism, and “digital dementia.” While it can feel like the internet and the cloud have been with us forever, the fact remains that the meaty research in these areas is still emerging.
And let’s not underestimate our own noggins. New research suggests that our memory banks are much bigger than researchers previously thought possible.