Discovery

A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

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But wait…does this mean we’re smarter on Google?

Readers of the recent not-off-the-presses, Internet-only edition of  Washington State Magazine will know that yours truly recently spent some time wringing his neurons over the fate of magazines, reading, and thinking in the digital age. Much like this whole Internet revolution of the past 15 or so years, it’s a fun and wild ride.

The piece at one point alludes to Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which contends we cease to think deeply if we power-browse and skim. Editor Tim Steury also did a drive-by of Carr’s thinking in his piece on how libraries are changing in the age of Google and pulled this Google-eyed viewfrom the book:

“The more pieces of information we ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

So which is it? When our noses are pressed up against the screen, are we thinking better or worse?

One intriguing piece of the answer came in an interview with Jaak Panksepp, a WSU neuroscientist, who explains in the video above how an Internet search activates the ancient, general purpose part of the brain involved in seeking things. A classic evolutionary analogy would say this system was used for hunting down prey, but Panksepp explains it’s also involved in  looking for water, sex, companionship, and, in the case of us information-age types, knowledge. You need not have hunted to know what this actually feels like. Think of chasing down a must-have item of clothing in a mall, or strolling in search of a good restaurant. It’s exciting stuff, and you can practically feel your medial forebrain bundle tingling.

Now comes more exciting research in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Using brain scans of web searchers, researchers found that the brain activity of novice Googlers was similar to someone simply reading, while veteran searchers used more than twice as many neural circuits and brain regions involved in complex thinking and decision making.

I’m no neuroscientist, but it sounds like Google is making them smarter.

More brain food can be found in the summer issue of Washington State Magazine.