Oct 12

Does technology make you smarter or dumber?

I got another request to comment on yet another media claim that technology is bad for our brains.  It’s actually also a good example of really poor science reporting in the media, so I won’t link it, but the topic seems generally of interest and it appears to be based on a curious underlying (folk) model of cognition worth thinking about.

How would this work?  How could technology make us less smart?  The core idea is that be looking things up, we memorize less and therefore we are less smart than we could be otherwise.  But this misses the issue of substitution.  If you aren’t memorizing something you can look up, do you learn something else instead?

To me, the interesting underlying idea is: Memory doesn’t have an “off switch”

We are constantly recording experiences from our environment.  Of course, not everything gets remembered, so maybe we focus too much on the memory failures.  But we aren’t consciously turning our memories on and off through the day.  So if we are trying to memorize arbitrary facts that we could look up on google instead, during that time we aren’t doing something else that could have left a useful memory trace.  Note that I’m describing this as an attention/perception bottleneck, but it could be a memory consolidation level bottleneck as well (which is probably the actual constraint that keeps us from remembering everything we experience).

The only way for this argument to really make sense is to have a strong theory that everything we would have memorized (instead of relying on google) is more valuable to our internal knowledge state than everything we learn instead.  I think that is going to be a hard case to make.  And it won’t really be about technology.

There’s another way to make a possible ‘technology hurts the brain’ case based on skill learning/strengthening.  If memory is a skill that can be improved by intensive practice, then concentrated attempts to memorize arbitrary information could theoretically make you better at remembering (and over time, you’d just get smarter).  But there is no evidence anywhere that long-term memory can be strengthened this way — and many people have tried to do this.

Working memory looks to be trainable, but if anything, technology that makes you hold a question in mind while putting in the search terms to look it up is going to expand your WM rather than causing it to atrophy.

So no, technology is not going to make us less smart.  It’s almost certain to be overwhelmingly in the other direction — the access provided by the internet to incredibly rich and diverse kinds of information means the average knowledge content of the average human brain in the 21st century is a lot more than the 20th or any other prior time.


Leave a Reply