The Internet, with its search engines and instant access to information, is an amazing tool. With just a few keystrokes (or taps), we can search for virtually anything we desire. Whether it be double checking the spelling of a word, or reading up on the Michelson-Morley experiment, it is very useful to be able to satisfy our curiosity at a whim.
However, my recent use of search engines to double check my knowledge has left me wondering about some things: Should it be worrying that I am constantly double checking concepts or pieces of information I supposedly already knew? Am I over relying on Google to the detriment of my memory? How beneficial is it really to have instant access to a myriad of information?
I’m certainly not the first person to question the effect of instant access to information on my recall abilities. Researchers and laymen alike have pondered over its many possible implications. As a layman, though, my main concern is whether or not this is hindering my ability to learn new things.
For very specific figures or relatively obscure facts this doesn’t seem that worrying. It’s nice to know that the battle of Waterloo was fought on the Sunday of June 18, 1815, but I believe it’s much more important to know the context and events of the battle. However, being unsure of topics I am supposed to be educated on is not as easy to ignore (especially if my classes will test me on these topics!)
Therefore, I’ll be looking at research on this topic in an attempt to ease my anxieties. And perhaps we’ll also learn a thing or two about memory and learning along the way.
The path of least resistance
It’s no secret that, as humans, we are wired to avoid discomfort and unnecessary (or deemed unnecessary) work. This doesn’t mean that we’re slothful creatures, as most of us have ambitions and can get things done when it comes down to it. Nevertheless, we are evolutionary programmed to take the path of least resistance whenever we can.
This isn’t always a good thing, of course. The power of delayed gratification puts this on this display. Decisions that seem optimal for the short-term might prove to be awful in the long-term. The best example of this is the well-known Marshmallow Experiment. In this study, Stanford researchers gave children the choice of either getting one immediate reward, or waiting a bit of time to get more of that reward later. The children who could resist the urge to take the immediate reward were assessed years later and were found to have better life outcomes (higher SAT scores, higher earnings, etc.)
A more relatable example might be how people manage their finances: day-trade and spend money on things with questionable returns, or save and make good long-term investments. Or, for students, try to make as much room to pay for your schooling or… forget it, there is no real alternative in their case (unless you’re rich or a minority.)
Finances aren’t really of interest to us right now, though. A better example would have to do with students and online browsing. Spending our time watching YouTube video chains or/and browsing social media instead of finishing our schoolwork is something a lot of us have regretted at some time or another. Yet, what compels us to label this time as “wasted” it’s not a lack of learning, it’s the fact that we were learning the wrong things.
Even if you manage to get all your work done at the last moment, this (allocation?) of time is arguably not in your best interest for the long-term. Still, it doesn’t take much for the average person’s primal brain to determine that this course of action is, indeed, the right one, even if they know that that isn’t the case. So much for rationality in our daily lives.
This isn’t an obscure topic by any means. Masses of people have already covered how our brain’s reward system uses neurotransmitters such as dopamine to influence our behavior. The self-improvement community thrives on ‘fighting’ these archaic primal mechanisms which seem to work against our interests. Been there, done that. But it’s still useful to refresh our memories on these topics.
And time and time again, whenever there is something about human nature that can be used to engineer people, there will always be someone to do it. This can be seen in the way casinos operate, how tobacco and alcohol are made, and more recently social media platforms.
People’s Internet usage — by young people in particular — has seen the unfortunate side effect of social media addiction. People are getting onto social media at younger ages, spending more time using these platforms, and are more prone to believing that it’s impossible to give up their social media habits. Calling this an epidemic would not be that much of a long shot, given its implications on people’s mental health and relationships.
It seems that, for students, this was the case even before the prominence of modern giants such as Instagram and Snapchat. Online access always leads the user towards social networking, due to the nature of the medium. This was no different with students back in 2011, albeit to a lesser extent than people nowadays.
That is the other side of the information coin: the marvels of the Internet, which allow you to learn virtually anything you want, can be exploited by entities — in this case social media companies — to keep you hooked on certain types of content. As previously mentioned, these companies make use of the user’s most primal reward-seeking mechanisms to their advantage.
When using these platforms, we (more specifically, our primal brains) are led to believe that the content from social media sites is more important than anything else we might need to get done. Since the utility to getting our more important tasks done is deemed lower than the reward from social media usage, our aversion to getting important things done increases. As a result, the cost-benefit analysis made by our brain gets skewed, which leads us to procrastinate.
Of course, even if social media giants weren’t playing with our psychology, procrastination would still occur. However, as education continues to move more and more into the Online space, the issue of social media usage will likely only get worse.
We are wired to avoid difficult things, instead opting for the path of least resistance. Most of us find studying to be difficult or tedious, so we avoid that. The possibility that we’re adding an extra variable to discourage us from being productive is something to be pondered over.
More = better?
The amount of information we have at our fingertips is would put the Library of Alexandria, plus the knowledge of every other one of its kind, to shame. It’s undeniable that access to information is easier than ever. However, not all information is created equal, and just because it exists doesn’t mean people actually make good use of it. If the Internet made people more educated and better-learned, we could expect Americans to no longer be extremely ignorant about politics and even their own history.
But perhaps this is a phenomena unique to Americans; if one is to believe stereotypes, that is. Either way, trying to quantify whether or not the average person has become more knowledgeable is an impossible task. Perhaps the gains made by learning interesting history facts are cancelled out by the time spent on entertainment. We covered social media, but there are also a myriad of other Netflix-like platforms and services competing for people’s attention. For all the abundance of fruitful information, there is just as much — if not more — non-fruitful content to be found.
Instead of beating a dead horse, though, let’s talk about what happens when we are being productive, whatever your definition of that word might be. How is the Internet affecting us in that regard? Surely it’s changing something about our learning habits. Do we learn better when we use online resources, or should we stick to the good ol’ textbooks?
As it turns out, having to work harder for something often makes it more valuable. Studies such as this one have found usage of search engines to have a neurological effect on people. In this study specifically, people who used search engines to find answers to questions exhibited higher activation in their prefrontal cortex, which is a region of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control, among others. There were also changes in their Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), which is responsible for behavior monitoring and attentiveness.
The results of this study might seem obvious when you think about it; having access to seemingly all-knowing entities will definitely make people more dependent on these. The fact that knowing how and where to find information makes people less motivated to learn it (think: “can’t remember someone’s birthday because I can find it on FB”) also cannot be overstated.
Yet we should also consider how the Internet could change our problem-solving processes and intellectual curiosity. When you have access to virtually any question you want to ask, why even try to work through the problem yourself? Even if you’re looking into something like a moral dilemma, for example, you can easily find the opinions of much more notable people in no time. And, knowing that you can learn whatever you wish to so easily, will you be so eager to be curious about the world?
This is approaching a more philosophical rather than scientific plane, though., so it seems appropriate to end things here. Regardless, there are certainly many things to be pondered over when it comes to learning and the online world, scientific or not.
(This is part of my notes which I forgot to remove from the article when publishing. Leaving it up as a sort of wrap-up with extra info.)
- People who were given Internet search “training” had higher activation in regions of the prefrontal cortex responsible for impulse control, decision making, among others. Changes were also present in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which influences attentiveness and behavior monitoring. This manifested in people relying more on the Internet when faced with new situations, as well as them having more of an impulse to search things up.
Short-term Internet search using makes people rely on search engines when facing unknown issues
The Internet search engines, which have powerful search/sort functions and ease of use features, have become an…
-Internet addiction linked with social isolation and anxiety/depression. Heavy internet usage decreases motivation, harms learning abilities, and decreases learning efficacy (connect to learning habits and internet dependency). People in STEM fields were also more likely to experience Internet addiction and mental issues than people in the humanities.
Relationship between levels of problematic Internet usage and motivation to study in university…
This study explored the relationship between problematic levels of Internet use and motivation to study in a university…
-Heavy web browsing associated with lower grades. For one reason or another, ‘light’ Internet users are over-represented in the better achieving students’ group.
- High internet usage can lead to disturbed sleep patterns, social isolation, and other psychological/behavioral issues. Nevertheless, most people reported positive effects from Internet usage (in moderation).