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Google Makes You Smarter? Hey, Who Said That?

By - October 14, 2008

Well, Nick, sorry, but here’s at least one study backing up my contention:

A new study suggests that searching online could be beneficial for the brain. Searching online triggers areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning.

A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, measured brain activity of older adults as they searched the Web.

“There’s so much interest in exercising our minds as we age,” said the researcher, Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “One result of this study is that these technologies are not all bad. They may be good in keeping our brains active.”

To study what brains look like when people are searching the Internet, Small recruited two groups of people: one that had minimal computer experience and another that was Web savvy.

Members of the technologically advanced group had more than twice the neural activation than their less experienced counterparts while searching online. Activity occurred in the region of the brain that controls decision-making and complex reasoning, according to Small’s study, which appears in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

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9 thoughts on “Google Makes You Smarter? Hey, Who Said That?

  1. nmw says:

    If the conclusion of the study is — as the CNN headline reports — in fact that “Google Does a Brain Good”, then I would have misgivings about the validity of the research.

    I will assume, however, that there is little or no difference WRT brain activity that is attributable to the brand name of the search engine used.

    Indeed, the press release at UCLA.EDU ( ) does not mention any brand names. I suspect, John, that the CNN reporter may have misinterpreted the results.

    That said, it may indeed be interesting to investigate whether the brand name of the search engine has an affect on the mental health of the searcher. AFAIK, some studies of the affect of branding on user satisfaction have already been done — but these studies show that the brand name may indeed have a rather “confusing” effect (since prejudice may play a significant role in the reported level of satisfaction).

    I would wish that such misrepresentations in reporting (as might have occurred here) would be corrected.

  2. KurtS says:

    John, to quote your original post from June 10, “Puuuuuuuhhhhleezzze.”

    Reading the article, all I get is that frequently engaging in challenging mental activity is probably good for your brain, and Search is one example of a challenging mental activity.

    Had the researchers used Sudoku instead of Search, I bet they would have seen the same results – but probably wouldn’t have made CNN (or Searchblog!).

    Now, had the researchers shown that searching the internet was more effective at stimulating the brain than other activities for which similar claims have been made(crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc), then this might be a much more interesting discussion.

  3. JG says:

    The study compared two groups of people, both of whom were using a web search engine. How does this show that using a web search engine make us smarter? What was the control group? People who didn’t use a search engine at all? People who used a library card catalog, rather than a search engine?

    KurtS has a good point: There was no real control group.

    Instead, the two groups that they compared (tech savvy users and tech unsavvy users) both used the search engine. And they found that there was more brain activation in the tech savvy users, and less activation in the unsavvy users.

    Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. Who does Google target, with its search engine? It targets tech *unsavvy* users. I have heard folks from Google state over and over again that their goal as a search engine is to keep the interface (both input and output) very simple, without a lot of complicated options, and hide all the complexity behind the curtain, in the algorithms.

    And guess what? In this study, the unsavvy users have a lot less brain activity.

    Thus, the following hypothesis seems completely plausible to me: the tech unsavvy users come and use Google, and their brain circuits never get activated, because Google doesn’t make them think, because Google tries to hide in the algorithm anything that would make them think. Therefore, Google really is making the unsavvy users stupid, because Google does not allow those users to challenge themselves in any way.

    On the other hand, the tech savvy users exhibit much more brain activity.

    The following hypothesis also seems completely plausible to me: Because Google tries to hide so much complexity in the algorithm, and restricts the methods and manner of input and interaction with the search engine to a single line of text input, and only 10 blue links for results, the tech savvy users find themselves having to work much harder to get the information out of the search engine that they know is there.

    For example, an educated, tech savvy user might be trying to use Google to find information on the current U.S./global financial crisis. What started the crisis? Was it just the sub-prime mortgage problem? Or were there other issues with the paper markets, or with credit default swaps? What legislation over the past decade or two have Republicans either passed or vetoed, that has either helped or worsened this current crisis? What legislation have Democrats either passed or vetoed?

    Try satisfying your information needs for these questions through a one-line query input box, and 10 blue links. Can’t quite do it? Well, then you probably have to work a lot harder, while searching, to coax Google into getting it to behave how you want it to behave, rather than how it wants you to behave. So you end up using more neural circuitry, to satisfy your information need, by having to try and use Google in a way that Google hasn’t really designed itself to be used.

    I cannot say for sure if these hypotheses are correct or not. But without further testing, they seem at least as equally plausible as anything else. And if correct, they do seem to suggest that (1) Google does make us stupid, if we’re unsavvy, and (2) Google makes us smarter, if we’re savvy…but not through any direct Google intentionality! We basically become smarter because we have to learn ourselves how to use Google to do something that Google doesn’t support.

    Oh the irony.

  4. nmw says:

    LOL! How true it is — your explanation is the most plausible of all! ;D

    Crosswords, Sudoku , Google — all are puzzles!


    😀 nmw

  5. nmw says:

    Then again — I have to admit: I do believe that all “one-size fits-all” search engines are equally puzzling — you really need to use the wisdom of the language ( ) to find meaningful information — basically answers that are relevant to the searcher’s query (like who who would search the biological abstracts for information about the stock market? only a novice — or Google [or similar “one-size fits-all” engines] ;).

    One thing I feel Microsoft is doing right: They are launching more and more search engines. One thing they are doing wrong: They are not launching the “right” ones.

    I wonder if anyone at Microsoft has even read about the Wisdom of Language. If someone is searching for a DVD recorder, why would they type in “cashback” or “searchperks”? They could easily buy 1 or 2 thousand domains that are far better at fetching the appropriate target audiences than wasting scarce resources on advertising jingles.

  6. JG says:

    Then again — I have to admit: I do believe that all “one-size fits-all” search engines are equally puzzling

    Well, the followup study that I would like to see is whether or not there is a relationship between brain activity, and ad clickthroughs.

    Is there something fundamental toward which lower brain-activity users are being conditioned.. in which they are so used to such a low, “stupidifying” level of engagement with their searches that they are more likely to quickly give up searching the organic results, and click an ad instead?

    Whereas maybe the more tech savvy, higher brain-engaged users have to spend more effort and more brain activity, but eventually get everything they need in the organic results?

    That would be an extremely interesting study. I wonder what kind of correlations we might see between savvyness, brain activity levels, and search engine organic results vs. ads.

    I can see the title of the paper now: “Is Google Making us Hyper-Consumerist”?

  7. Research or intense game playing does stimulate the brain.

    The Web has so much stimuli that sometimes you can be absorbed for HOURS and not even feel the time go by.

    Taking into account all the energy and instincts that go into Web design, multimedia advertising and content, the user is instantly on the receiving end of so much dynamic information, creativity and energy.

  8. nmw says:

    That would be an extremely interesting study. I wonder what kind of correlations we might see between savvyness, brain activity levels, and search engine organic results vs. ads.

    I am also very curious to hear whether someone might offer a good operational definition of what a “search engine” is.

    Om Malik was just interviewed by Sarah Lacy about the failure of newspapers WRT advertising (I blogged about it at 🙂 — are newspapers search engines (or not)? What about SourceTool.COM? How about Download.COM — or Digg.COM? — what is not a search engine?

  9. Michelle B says:

    John, I really liked this entry and the one about teaching your daughter the define function on Google. I love using Google, it is my favorite search tool and I’m not ashamed to say it!!

    I agree that “Google” can make you smarter. Or maybe I should say “Googling” (the verb) as in the action of looking up info online can make you smarter.

    My grandmother, who has always been as sharp as a tack, even at 96 loved “Googling” she could look up anything she could think of.
    Using your brain and engaging in the thinking process is what causes brain developement and continued function.
    Thanks for some really cool and interesting articles. MB