Culture: Outsourcing our brains

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the August 2016 issue of The Rotarian

When I tell people I grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. – the epicenter of Silicon Valley – they tend to assume that I was born with a silver iPod in my mouth.

But back in the 1970s, Palo Alto was a sleepy college town. The big innovation of my boyhood was a gizmo that Alissa Fox once brought in for show and tell. It performed four basic math functions and displayed the result on a tiny LCD screen. We regarded the calculator as nothing short of a miracle.

When I tell my own kids about the devices I used throughout childhood – the phones bolted to the wall, the typewriters, the dense volumes of the encyclopedia – they listen with a certain pitying incredulity, as if I were describing the customs of early hominids roaming the Serengeti for edible tree bark.

And who can blame them? My oldest daughter was handed an iPad in first grade, as was her brother two years later. They speak to Siri as if she were an old friend. Granted, they are often asking Siri what it sounds like when a duck farts, then laughing hysterically. But still.

The point is that they are growing up in a world where hand-held devices offer immediate answers to practically any question or dilemma that may arise in their lives. They don’t see this as strange or troubling.

I do.

It frightens me that we have become so casually dependent on technology, so ready to surrender essential human virtues – self-reliance and curiosity and competence – in our quest for convenience.

The best example I can offer is what my wife and I refer to as the GPS Argument, which we have every few months, usually while driving someplace with our kids in the back seat hollering at Siri and cackling.

The gist of the argument is that my wife loves GPS and I hate it. Or, to put it more affirmatively, I’m a big fan of maps. I don’t just want to know the exact route to my destination. I want to get a geographic sense of where I am, the prevailing terrain, the nearby roads and cities. I would rather get a little lost and have to ask a local how to find Route 177 than rely on the robotic voice of Google Maps.

My underlying desire dates to my boyhood, when it was an honor to be the navigator on a family trip: to possess the map, to study the various byways, and to figure out the most efficient – or, heck, sometimes the most scenic – route.

To be the navigator meant you were paying attention to the world around you, calculating distances, anticipating traffic, developing what my father called “a good sense of direction.” It meant using our brains, and our imaginations, rather than the all-knowing tracking beam of some orbiting satellite.

As it turns out, my intuitive grudge against GPS has some scientific basis. Several years ago, researchers at McGill University in Montreal ran memory tests on people who used GPS versus more old-fashioned forms of navigation. The map readers did better. Why? Because habitually relying on GPS reduces the functioning of the hippocampus, that little seahorse-shaped patch of the brain that controls long-term memory and spatial orientation.

We’re essentially delegating our cognitive functioning to machines, neglecting neural pathways that we carved out over millions of years of evolution.

An even more obvious example would be our gradual outsourcing of memory. When I was growing up, my contact list resided entirely in my head. I knew the phone numbers and addresses of all my friends. I knew the names of their parents. I knew all the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I knew the batting averages and pitching tendencies of my favorite baseball team, along with hundreds of significant historical dates. (OK, dozens of historical dates.)

But in the past few years, as I’ve become more reliant on my smartphone, I’ve essentially stopped memorizing anything – and I’ve found my overall memory weakening. I am constantly misplacing items (such as my smartphone). I struggle to recall particular words. I walk into the kitchen or the study having forgotten what I meant to do.

Some of this may be due to aging. But the neurological research suggests a direct and unsettling link.

It turns out that our brains don’t function like computers. They’re more like muscles. If we don’t store and retrieve facts on a regular basis, our brains get out of shape, and our capacity to do this work diminishes.

These cognitive functions are linked to the deeper analytical thinking that allows human beings to convert information into knowledge. What’s more, habitual use of smartphones appears to correlate to a kind of thinking that favors intuition over analysis, according to a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

One of the researchers, Gordon Pennycook, says smartphone addicts “may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn, but seem to be unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it.”

What’s scariest, according to Pennycook, is that smartphones have been around  for only a few years. Scientists have no  idea how they may affect us over the course of decades.

One thing we do know is that all the biggest tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft, are investing heavily in “bots” that will make the acquisition of information (and products) even easier. Forget searching for a recipe online, much less consulting a cookbook. You’ll just ask a bot, which will recite it out loud.

Back in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, we weren’t the biggest or strongest animals. But we were the most intelligent. And the most vital aspect of that intelligence was our adaptability. All our crucial innovations – the wheel, the cultivation of fire, agriculture, nautical exploration – were driven by our ability to solve complex problems and improvise. Over and over, we have been able to convert adversity into invention.

So what happens in a world where technology is designed to eliminate adversity? Where we look to our devices to answer our questions and solve our problems?

Let me return to the question of my children. Over the past few months, my wife and I have been conducting an informal experiment: resisting the urge to defer to our smartphones and computers. We’re finding that the kids follow our lead.

Our son Judah, for instance, has recently become obsessed with Norway. Rather than asking Siri questions about it, he has been going to the library to check out books on Norway and poring over maps and grilling his grandfather (who has been there).

I’m not suggesting that we’re about to get rid of our GPS. My wife would never let me. But we are making a concerted effort to wean ourselves from our screens. And in the process, we’re realizing that a deficit of knowledge isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s an opportunity to learn.

That’s something I’ll strive to remember – particularly the next time I lose my smartphone.

The Rotarian