Your brain is probably one of the most complex things we know of (well, not just yours — other people’s, too). Billions of neurons each with myriad connections to others.
And everything you do — everything — affects its structure and those connections.
Cabbies and musicians
If you looked at the hippocampus (a part of the brain that deals with navigation) of a London cab driver, you would find it was considerably larger than in most other people. That’s because, in order to become licensed cabbies, they have to memorize hundreds of routes around the city of London. And committing all of those routes to memory develops that particular part of the brain.
If you learn to play the piano, guitar or other musical instruments, you learn, in time, exactly where to place your fingers without thinking about it. To begin with, you are conscious of where your fingers are, on the piano keyboard or the neck of the guitar, but, with practice, it becomes automatic. The wiring in your brain has changed to accomplish this.
And it has been shown that professional musicians’ brains have more grey matter in areas that are concerned with the motor control that is required to play an instrument well.
From studying cab drivers and musicians, we can see that it’s not just the connections in the brain that change, it’s the actual structure, too.
Your brain learns and adapts to deal with everything you do.
So why wouldn’t it be changed by our, now, extensive use of computers, smartphones, and the internet?
This, not a problem, it’s a natural adaptation to the environment.
People cannot read anymore — really?
A while ago researchers apparently found that skim-reading is the new normal. Reading from screens is, apparently, making us incapable of reading in depth.
An experiment that is supposed to demonstrate this had two sets of students reading the same text — a story. One set of students read from a book, the other from a screen. When tested, the ones that read from the book could answer more in-depth questions than the screen readers.
We are asked to believe that this demonstrates that screens stop us from reading in-depth.
But you could equally conclude that screens allow us to skim-read more easily.
Skim-reading is a good skill to have and it is entirely possible — no, very likely — that scrolling down a screen allows you to skim read much more easily than flicking through paper pages.
In fact, contrary to what we are told, the experiment shows that people certainly can read in depth, as the book readers demonstrated.
I may not know my phone number but I do know where I live and I can use internet banking!
If the question had been about street addresses, I’m sure most adults would have remembered where they lived now as well as where they lived as a child — even if they did have their current address on their mobile phone.
But, while I have no memory for telephone numbers that I never use, I can remember all the digits that I need to log onto internet banking and the PIN numbers of my credit cards. Why? Because, unlike telephone numbers, I use them all the time!
Why remember stuff you don’t need?
Another thing was that people don’t mind forgetting something that they have looked up on the Internet if they know that they can easily find it again. Rather than remember a fact respondents were more inclined to remember where they found it.
Just like using a reference book — or a library!
The “Google Effect”
This so-called “Google Effect” was described in research done by Dr. Betsy Sparrow back in 2011. She explained that, for some information, people prefer to remember where to find it rather than remember the information itself.
This was, she said, a type of “transactive”, or external, memory; it’s the same as going to an expert who you know will have some information you need rather than remembering it yourself. This is, of course, something that people have always done.
Why worry about it?
Is any of this really a problem?
It’s not as if people are forgetting their friends’ names, or how to tie their shoelaces. They simply do not find it useful to remember a string of numbers that are only meaningful to a telephone system. Why would you want to remember a telephone number if you didn’t have to?
We change. All the time. Our bodies change, so do our brains. There is nothing strange about it.
We can read in-depth if we need to, but we can also skim read by scrolling a screen and, maybe, for most of the text we find online, skim-reading is the most appropriate way of reading. After all, Facebook posts, or Tweets, are not generally the most complex communications.
We can remember the things that we need to remember but, forget the things that we rarely use. That is not a problem, it is entirely sensible and should be expected.