Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet Is Changing the Human Brain
We are only just beginning to understand how easy access to information is reshaping how we think.
Do you remember what a struggle it was to remember the name of a certain actress, the kind of car you drove a decade ago, or what year a historical event took place? Fortunately, with the internet, the answers are right at your fingertips, at all times. Though the ease of acquiring information in the modern world has improved our lives in so many ways, it is also changing how our brain works and processes information. Some wonder when taken altogether, whether the results are better or worse for us. A new study published in the journal Memory looks into the process of “cognitive offloading,” or relying on Google, GPS, and other external devices for what we used to use our memories for. It considers the impact on learning and problem solving as well.
This was a collaborative effort among researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz along with those at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. They wanted to determine how likely it was for a group of participants to reach for their smartphone when asked a series of questions. First, participants were split into two groups. Each was given a number of trivia questions. One group was able to use Google while the other had to rely on memory alone. In the second phase, simpler questions were posed, and both groups were allowed to use their phones if they wished.
Those who were allowed to Google answers initially were more likely to rely on the search engine to answer subsequent questions, even if they were easier. In contrast, those who relied on their memory were more likely to think about second phase questions before reaching for their smartphone. Memory reliant participants were also quicker at answering trivia questions overall. Another find, those who used the internet did not attempt to answer one question from memory, even a simple one. Benjamin Storm was the lead author on this study. According to him, the results were clear. “As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”
The internet may be shortening our attention spans and memory, impacting education and learning.
The term cognitive offloading was developed by Canadian researcher Evan F. Risko and his British colleague Sam Gilbert. According to them, this is a process that has been going on for centuries or more. For instance, for decades now we’ve been using calculators to do our finances, and writing down important dates in a calendar. But no technology has altered how we think quite like the internet. So this begs the question, what might this be doing to our brains?
Through their studies, Risko and Gilbert found that people will use technology when they believe it is superior to their own capabilities. Though we may believe offloading hurts our memory, people do need these devices because we are “capacity limited.” So such devices allow us to “subvert our cognitive limits,” according to researchers.
Even so, there are disadvantages. One worrisome one, cognitive offloading may be making our life experiences less vivid in our memories. Consider this. One study allowed visitors to a museum to take pictures of certain exhibits using digital cameras. Researchers discovered that being able to take photos of what they saw made subjects less likely to remember the details about them. They were much better at remembering objects which weren’t photographed over those that were.
Our devices can cause us to miss the depth and breadth of some of life’s best experiences. (Students in the Eiffel Tower)
We know for a fact computers are rewiring our brains. One study using brain imaging technology showed that receiving reminders for an event actually changed activity inside the brain. Though cognitive changes are occurring, most of us aren’t aware of them. That’s not the case for Atlantic writer Nicholas Carr. He says he notices it when reading. Carr’s writes about this in his article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” which was developed into a book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr does credit the internet for making research that used to take days available in mere minutes. But what we get comes at a cost. Carr believes focus and deep contemplation are what we are giving up. Furthermore, we may be better at multitasking, but creativity could be suffering.
Several other writers mention in the piece say that they used to be voracious book readers, yet cannot seem to focus and follow along anymore, preferring to do all of their reading online instead. Today, people may be reading more than decades ago. But according to Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, we read differently. We skim, wanting immediate information but missing deeper context, varying interpretations, and some of the richer portions of the reading experience.
Ever focused on technology, we sometimes miss an opportunity for deeper contemplation.
Though the brain is ever malleable and able to rewire itself to any situation, almost instantly, it will take some time before neurologists know exactly how the internet has altered the brain’s makeup and what it might mean for cognition. We haven’t even mapped the entire organ, yet. So deeper understanding will take time. Still, there are a lot of indicators to how the ubiquity of the internet is changing how we think.
Of course, people have been calling new, disruptive media technologies the downfall of civilization since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. If anything, it spread learning and made the world far more sophisticated. What we need to find out is where technology improves our experiences and where it doesn’t. Having a more intimate understanding of this will allow us to find the best places to use technology, such as remembering mundane facts and figures, while barring it in certain areas, such as museums, so that people can get the most out of life’s finer experiences.
To learn more about cognitive offloading click here:
- How limiting social media reduces depression and loneliness - Big Think ›
- The homogeneity of the news media can now be quantified - Big Think ›
- The homogeneity of the news media can now be quantified - Big Think ›
- How to remember everything you read - Big Think ›
- The internet didn’t make us smart. It made us busy. - Big Think ›
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones.
One of the most devastating elements of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.