TECH
08/25/2015 12:48 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

How Google Is Changing The Way We Think

Are we evolving to keep pace with search engines?
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Google, the humble search engine, has grown a lot over the years.

It’s an advertising powerhouse, building a series of products that run our lives -- like Gmail, Google Maps, Android, Chrome -- and under its new umbrella corporation, Alphabet, the company is developing products like driverless cars and surgical robots that promise to transform our lives.

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company in 1998, Google was a product that anticipated needs, ranking a list of websites by how relevant they were to a query.

But what really matters is the length of that list.

Google spits out massive amounts of information. Even the name Google, a misspelling of "googol" -- the number one followed by 100 zeros -- is innuendo, delivering a promise of massive amounts of results with each search.

How are these massive information dumps affecting how we think? That’s the question that intrigued Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who studies the aging brain. In the fall of 2006, Small and his wife, Gigi Vorgan, were hard at work on a book about how the Internet changes the brain when they realized no one had studied what happens to the brain when a person searches online.

“I was very curious,” says Small. So he ran a study.

He took 24 subjects -- 12 people who often used search engines and 12 who rarely used them -- and gave each person an MRI to see their brain activity while they Googled. What Small found surprised him: As they Googled, his subjects' brains lit up.

Small published his findings in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in 2009, in a paper titled “Your Brain on Google.” According to Small’s research, using a search engine increased activity in the regions of the brain dealing with decision making, complex reasoning and vision. Also, the more-experienced Internet users exhibited more than twice as much brain activity as the less-experienced subjects, leading Small to predict that the more we search, the stronger the brain’s reaction to searching.

“It’s a model that’s very similar to what happens when you start exercising your muscles,” he says. “It's exhausting at first, and then once you start increasing the weight, you can lift more weight with less energy.”

On Vine, a user jokes about how tiring Google searches are.

Now there’s a large body of research about the many ways that searching for information online is changing us. Studies have found that people with access to search engines overestimate their intelligence, and that people who read online are more likely to skim.

One influential study, produced by researchers at Columbia, Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that people were less likely to remember a piece of trivia when they had access to the Internet. Instead, they were more likely to remember where the information had been saved.

“The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” the researchers concluded.

Our brains are pliant, and built to seek out new information. “It’s why we don’t like re-runs,” explains Small. It's also why we react so strongly to the limitless information we can find on the Internet. The Web is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of knowledge, and search engines are an easy ticket in. It gives us exactly what we want, which is why it’s difficult not to gorge.

And we've been binging for over a decade now. In 1998, Google's first year in existence, the site saw 9,800 searches per day, on average. By 2014, that number had ballooned to 5.7 billion. Search engines aren't just an option for research; they are the most prevalent way that we encounter new information -- which changes the scope of research on how they're affecting us. 

When Small first ran his study in 2007, it was hard to find people who hadn't used search engines. "That's why the people in the study were older; because older people tend to be late adopters of technology," he says. Now, he expects, it would be close to impossible to find a sample of non-search engine users. 

For its part, Google has dedicated itself to creating digital options to replace the human functions we now have difficulty using. In recent years, the company has experimented with systems that allow us to record our location, actions and experiences on the site -- outsourcing our personal memories from our heads to the Web. 

Yet Small's latest research has evolved from his earlier projects: He's now studying the effects of technology deprivation on the brain. Recently, he studied a group of sixth-grade students who were separated from their devices for five days in the woods. Forced to interact with each other, they showed significant improvement in their social and emotional intelligence after their Internet-free retreat. 

"The good news about that study is we can retrain our brain to reactivate those skills," explains Small. "Nothing is being lost forever." 

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