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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:
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- 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 ›
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.
Can computers do calculations in multiple universes? Scientists are working on it. Step into the world of quantum computing.
- While today's computers—referred to as classical computers—continue to become more and more powerful, there is a ceiling to their advancement due to the physical limits of the materials used to make them. Quantum computing allows physicists and researchers to exponentially increase computation power, harnessing potential parallel realities to do so.
- Quantum computer chips are astoundingly small, about the size of a fingernail. Scientists have to not only build the computer itself but also the ultra-protected environment in which they operate. Total isolation is required to eliminate vibrations and other external influences on synchronized atoms; if the atoms become 'decoherent' the quantum computer cannot function.
- "You need to create a very quiet, clean, cold environment for these chips to work in," says quantum computing expert Vern Brownell. The coldest temperature possible in physics is -273.15 degrees C. The rooms required for quantum computing are -273.14 degrees C, which is 150 times colder than outer space. It is complex and mind-boggling work, but the potential for computation that harnesses the power of parallel universes is worth the chase.