November 27, 2020

The Internet Is Making Your Brain Lazy — Here’s How to Change That

We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. You can get instant answers to almost any question by typing or speaking into a little black box that fits inside your pocket. Assuming they could’ve imagined such technology, our ancestors would’ve called it magic.

However, there’s a dark side to instantaneous information. While it does have many benefits, it’s also making us mentally lazy. It’s weakening our critical thinking skills and robbing our lives of richness.

How did this happen, why does it matter, and what can we do about it? Let’s take a closer look.

How the Internet Can Change Your Brain

Before the internet, looking up information was hard work. Even simple questions such as “What is the boiling point of water at sea level?” or “What year did Colorado become a state?” required effort to answer.

At a minimum, you’d have to:

  1. Pull out an encyclopedia or another reference volume
  2. Consult the index or table of contents
  3. Thumb through the book until you found what you were looking for

And in many cases, you’d need to take the extra step of visiting your local library, where you’d:

  1. Hope they had a book on the subject
  2. Consult the card catalog or ask the librarian for help

And even after all that, you had no guarantee you’d find the answer to your question.

Today, it’s just a matter of typing a few words into your phone or asking your smart speaker. This seems undeniably good. You save so much time! But while that’s true, this easy access to information has some unexpected downsides

To start, constantly looking up information can diminish your ability to remember it. You may think you remember a fact, but you’re actually remembering where to look it up. The result, according to a 2011 paper published in Science, is that you begin to view the internet as an extension of your memory.

Furthermore, a 2016 paper published in the journal Memory showed that the more you use the internet to answer questions, the more you rely on it (instead of your own memory and critical thinking skills). With time, you rely on it to the point that you store less and less information in your brain.

This process is called “cognitive offloading,” and it seems harmless enough.

For instance, do you really need to take up brain space remembering every single step to bake chocolate chip cookies? You can look up the recipe any time, after all.

Heck, you can look up thousands of recipes for chocolate chip cookies. You aren’t limited to the ones you can find in your cookbook (assuming you even own any cookbooks).

However, the cognitive offloading that the internet enables can have some serious consequences for your ability to think and critically evaluate information.

The 4 Dangers of Cognitive Offloading

Arguments about how the internet is harming our ability to think remind me of what Socrates supposedly said about the “new” technology of writing:

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

– Socrates, quoted in “Plato on Writing”

These days, this argument seems absurd. Even if writing did diminish our ability to memorize information, it was worth the benefits to human culture and civilization. Why is the internet any different? Even if the internet does diminish our factual memory, surely it’s worth the brainpower it frees up to perform more complex cognitive tasks.

The problem, however, lies in the risk of offloading not just our factual memory to the internet, but also our critical thinking. When we rely on our phones to look up facts, it’s easy enough to do the same with more complex questions that we should be answering with our critical thinking skills.

This has some disturbing implications:

“Just Googling It” Prevents You from Learning

To start, defaulting to Google for answers can prevent you from doing the hard work required to learn a subject or skill.

For instance, I’ve been learning web development for the past few months. Part of this involves watching and reading courses that explain how the process works. But even more importantly, it means doing practice exercises and challenges to help me apply the information I’ve just read or watched.

In many cases, the instructor provides solutions to the practice exercises. And it’s quite tempting to skip to the solutions, read through them, and declare that I’ve learned whatever concept the lesson covered.

However, this is a serious mistake. Skipping to the answer deprives me of the hard work required to really learn the material. And when I’m working on a real development project, I won’t have the skills I need.

The same is true of googling answers to homework problems. Quickly looking up the answer provides a temporary jolt of satisfaction and removes the discomfort of struggling with a question on your own. But it also prevents you from learning the material, which can hurt your performance when it’s time to take the exam.

It’s the process of trying, struggling, and using your brain to find a solution that leads to real learning. The alternative is, at best, an illusion of competence.

Want to learn something new but aren’t sure where to start? Check out Skillshare.

A Lack of Critical Thinking Makes You Easy to Manipulate

If you assume the internet has the right answer to everything, what will happen when you run into information that’s inaccurate? Or even worse, deceptive?

Without a solid base of critical thinking skills, this information could lead you to make bad decisions. Sure, using incorrect information in a research paper for school may seem harmless enough (you’ll get a low grade, but it won’t kill you).

But what about when you encounter bad health advice? Or bad relationship advice? Or an article attempting to persuade you of an extreme ideology? If you can’t evaluate information critically, then it’s easy for others to mislead or even manipulate you.

Google Can’t Answer Life’s Most Important Questions

Getting a bit more philosophical, overreliance on the internet can lead you to believe it can answer questions that don’t have simple answers.

It’s easy to forget this, as the entire purpose of a search engine is to provide answers as quickly and concisely as possible.

When you’re looking up how many pints are in a gallon, a quick answer is helpful. But what about a more complex, existential question such as “What should I do with my life?” or “How do I find a romantic partner?” These searches will still return answers, but they’re often superficial and unsatisfying.

It’s easy to blame this on the quality of the resources the search returned. And while that can sometimes be the case, the broader issue is that life’s big questions don’t have simple answers. You can’t sum them up in a single blog post or snippet of text. People spend their lives exploring these questions, writing entire books about them. And even then, the answers remain ambiguous.

Ultimately, you need to contemplate and answer the big questions for yourself, seeking advice from history’s great thinkers along the way. Because even if someone claims to have an answer, it might not be the best for you. Once again, critical thinking is essential.

Internet Dependence Can Make You Helpless

When you’re without internet access, do you feel cut-off and helpless? As if you’ve lost a limb? I know I certainly do. And that’s a problem, because what are you going to do when you need to solve a serious problem and don’t have cell service?

For instance, let’s say you get lost in the woods and need to survive the night while you wait for someone to rescue you (which, by the way, is generally a better approach than wandering around trying to find your way out).

You need to make a shelter, and you have zero cell phone reception. If you’re used to googling everything, you may not make it. (Obviously, this is a good reason to carry a paper wilderness survival manual and to learn how to survive in the woods before your life depends on it, but you get the point).

Even if you have access to the internet most of the time, it’s still a smart idea to know how to survive without it.

How to Avoid Mental Laziness

Now that we’ve explored the perils of mental laziness, what can we do about it? How do we benefit from the internet’s power while still retaining our ability to think critically?

Here are a few ideas:

Use the 15-Minute Rule

“You must try, and then you must ask” – Matt Ringel

One of the best ways to avoid mental laziness is to practice the 15-minute rule. It’s a process you can apply whenever you get stuck on a school assignment or a work project. Here are the steps:

  1. When you’re presented with a problem that you don’t immediately know that answer to, ask if you have even a small amount of confidence that you can solve it on your own.
  2. If yes, then spend 15 minutes trying to solve the problem.
  3. As you work, document each step of your process.
  4. If you still haven’t solved the problem after 15 minutes, get help (either from a person or via a Google search).

This process has several benefits:

  • Often, spending 15 minutes working and documenting the process will be enough to solve the problem on your own.
  • If you can’t solve the problem, the documentation you create will make it easier for someone else to help you (since they don’t have to spend time listening to you explain what you did).
  • Imposing a time limit prevents you from wasting hours bashing your head against the wall to solve a problem that your professor, boss, or the internet could have helped you solve in minutes.

Over time, this process will help you build your critical thinking and self-reliance.

Give Yourself the Time and Space to Wonder

“It takes discipline, now, not to look things up immediately, but to sit and wonder…” – Austin Kleon

When I watched the video that inspired this article, I immediately thought of this blog post about the difference between wondering and knowing. The essential argument is that instant access to information has diminished our “space for wondering.”

Before everyone had smartphones, a dinner party question such as “What’s the fastest animal on Earth?” could be the source of a spirited conversation. But now, someone can just pull out their phone and look it up, killing the conversation before it begins.

I’m not discouraging you from looking up facts (particularly if knowing the answer is important), but I have tried to cultivate the habit of wondering about questions instead of immediately looking them up.

Often, I’ll realize that I did know the answer and just needed some time to remember it. Or, I’ll be able to arrive at the answer through logic. And other times, the process of wondering about the question will lead me to new creative ideas.

Finally, I’d argue that you don’t need to know every trivial fact such as the top running speed of a cheetah or the average height of a llama. If these facts are relevant to your interests or field, great. But otherwise, there are probably more fulfilling things you could do than fact check trivial questions.

Don’t Abandon the Internet Entirely

I’ve spent most of this article telling you not to use the internet. However, there are still plenty of cases when you should, when not doing so would be foolish.

When you’re doing homework, don’t waste time memorizing obscure formulae that you can just look up (unless your teacher requires you to memorize them, of course).

And in the professional realm, don’t be afraid to quickly look up things that would otherwise prevent you from continuing with your work. As a professional writer, for instance, I still have to look up certain grammar rules or how to spell certain words. Doing so lets me get on with the more important work of writing articles like these.

My engineer friends tell me much the same: they have all kinds of tables and databases for looking up the answers to common operations (as opposed to wasting time on manual calculations).

Don’t Let Your Mind Become Weak

The internet is a powerful tool. If you use it correctly, it can boost your work efficiency and give you access to information your ancestors could only have imagined.

But you need to have caution. Relying too much on the internet can degrade your critical thinking skills, prevent you from grappling with questions that don’t have a simple answer, and deprive your life of intellectual richness.

The internet affects more than your memory and critical thinking skills. Here’s how the internet can harm your ability to focus (and how to prevent it).

Image Credits: brain model

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