How technology fools the brain to think it remembers facts it finds online

If I suddenly lost my phone, until I got a replacement, I wouldn’t be able to: 

  • Do my banking
  • Make payments such as buying groceries, or a coffee
  • Get emails
  • Call any of my friends
  • Take pictures
  • See any of the pictures I’ve taken over the last eleven years
  • Shoot videos
  • Post on my social media accounts
  • Check up on my pets when I’m away from home
  • Record ideas and make notes

The fact that I outsource so many of my activities to a device which then seamlessly integrates in my life makes it easy to overlook some of the other key things I use my smartphone for: 

  • Search for information
  • Find services I need
  • Verify facts I’m not sure about

We need information to function in the world. Because information, and how we find it, is key to our survival it is inevitable that search, in general, and Google, in particular, affect the way our brain apportions memory in order to remember what we need. Adaptive learning is the means through which we change how we learn so we achieve two things: 

  • Learn as much as possible with as little effort as possible (the energetic cost of learning and remembering is key to this activity)
  • Remember as much as possible of what we learn with as little effort as possible

Google’s ability to provide fast, accurate (mostly) results, inevitably had an effect on the way we approach adaptive learning and apportion transactive memory. That hasn’t changed in the eleven years that passed since I wrote the article on the subject. So, why this post? Now? 

Memory Is Fuzzy

The brain loves to play tricks on us. Not so much to fool us as to reduce the energy burden on itself of maintaining multiple levels of a reality that is nuanced. Did I truly mean I loved my friend’s wife’s hat when I complimented her when we met or was I simply being polite and the hat left me indifferent? Or, did I actually hate the hat but chose instead to hide that fact from her and my friend for the sake of our friendship and just lied outright about how much I liked it? Or, did I think the hat was so-so and she could have made a better choice but it really didn’t matter and all I had to do was mouth the right sentiment to make the moment of our meeting pass without incident? 

Each of these options and any others I haven’t thought about would have to be remembered as I socially interacted with my friend and his wife. What’s more, I would have to remember what I said and why and what I felt (but didn’t say) in future meetings where I would have to navigate equally intricate social mines. 

So, it’s much easier to convince myself I love her hat. After all I truly haven’t got any hard feelings about hats and choices and telling myself I love her hat is by far the easiest way to reduce the cognitive load that all other options would damp on me. Would I be lying to myself? Sure, if I am being 100% honest, but seeing how reducing the cognitive load I feel is a real survival strategy my inclination to feel bad about it is significantly outweighed by the very direct benefits I enjoy in the increased ease with which I navigate daily life. 

Spotting when we lie to ourselves becomes infinitely harder the moment we introduce the internet and Google. The former mirrors our brain by being a repository for, collective in this case, knowledge. The latter mirrors the way we operate when we dredge our memories to find a piece of information that helps us make sense of a particular situation. 

Fresh research from the University of Texas, Austin, shows that people who habitually use the internet to access general knowledge, increasingly, fail to distinguish between information that lies external to themselves and information they already know which is stored in their memory. 

We Think With The World

Before the internet the sum total of our knowledge of the world was made up by what we had stored inside our head, plus what our immediate family and friends told us, plus what we could find out by our immediate community and acquaintances. 

Information becomes valuable only when it is networked with that possessed by others. Knowledge and understanding then grow exponentially. The extended mind hypothesis goes a step further by positing that a lot of our thinking is outsourced to the world around us. We know how to behave because the guidance we need is encoded in the social constructs we create, the institutions we put together and the norms we accept. Culture, to name one guideline, helps maintain our equilibrium by creating social, legal, traditional and historical norms that mitigate our worst instincts and amplify our better ones. 

The Extended Mind hypothesis then suggests that as the meaning of the words we use is the result of culture and context, the meaning of our cognitive processes is the result of a similar, active externalism where the environment we live in, in its totality, determines just how ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ we are. 

My latest book, Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully, could possibly have been written without drawing on 150 years’ worth of culture and history but it would have been a different book than the one I ended up writing. 

Interoception and Introspection

This brings us up squarely to the meaning of this current study and the alarm bells it might sound. “Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body and includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heart beat, respiration, satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions.” Introspection is an awareness of our own thinking processes. How we put our thoughts together and what effect they have. 

Our thoughts however are the direct result of our neurobiology and the way it processes the information it receives. We can’t divorce the brain from the body any more than we can separate light from darkness. We need both in order to make sense of each. 

Interoception and introspection are then needed in equal part. Our ability to discern how we access the information we need and where it resides is the only true indication that we know the boundaries of who we are and understand our own limitations. 

The balance we require for a healthy body is called homeostasis. It represents a large number of processes working in harmony with each other to help keep us functioning in different and sometimes adversarial environments. The same is true of our mind. 

When the volume, variety and velocity of the information we consume overwhelms us we lose the ability to discern its provenance. Veracity, the 4th vector of semantic search. 

The 4Vs of Semantic Search  

(See the full presentation on Slideshare)

Because information drives everything the 4Vs of the internal world of data map to the external world of behavior in very specific and, suddenly recognizable ways that I have detailed on this blog before

Beliefs, ideas and values drive behavior. When our beliefs, ideas ana values come as much from the external world as they come from our internal one our ability to be ourselves comes down to the degree of intentionality we can exercise in our choices. 

###
Intentional: How To Live, Love, Work And Play Meaningfully helps you shed the invisible chains that constrain you.