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Study suggests the internet is impacting our ability to solve problems and learn

When was the last time you had a prolonged conversation with someone where you were trying to remember the year a particular movie or song came out? If you’re like 99 percent of people, it’s been a while. Why? Because when there’s something we don’t know, we just look it up on our the internet — and mere seconds later, we have the answer right in front of us.

But according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, this could be doing more than just cutting down on frustrating discussions about whether Pulp Fiction came out in 1993 or 1994 . In fact, in a recent paper, they claim folks’ ever-increasing reliance on the internet is having a serious impact on our ability to solve problems, recall information, and learn.

Referring to our tendency to reach for a connected device as “cognitive offloading,” the researchers suggest that we’re relying on these technologies a bit more than we might realize.

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“The experiments had two phases,” lead author Dr Benjamin Storm told Digital Trends. “In the first phase, participants attempted to answer relatively difficult trivia questions — either with or without the help of Google. Then, in the second phase, participants were given the option of using Google to answer a new set of relatively easy trivia questions. Participants who were asked to use Google to answer the first set of questions became significantly more likely to use Google to answer the second set of questions than they would have been otherwise.”

This willingness to rely on the world’s most popular search engine came despite the fact that the second, easier set of questions could almost certainly have been answered from memory.

“Not only were participants more likely to use Google, but they made the decision to use Google significantly faster and they exhibited a significant reduction in something called ‘Need For Cognition’ — a measure of the extent to which someone likes to challenge themselves with difficult cognitive tasks,” Storm continued. “The findings seem to suggest that once people begin to rely on the internet to accomplish some task, they become more likely to continue to do so in the future.”

So should we be worried about this, or is this just a sign of technological progress? Is it no different from the fact that people in an age of watches and smartphones don’t rely so much on sun dials any more?

“Ultimately, we really have no idea,” Storm said. “Certainly, there are advantages to becoming reliant on the internet, especially given the breadth and depth of the information to which it gives us access. But there are also likely to be disadvantages. To what extent, for example, does our capacity for wisdom and creative insight depend on the accumulation of internal knowledge? These are the sorts of questions that will need to be answered. I don’t necessarily think we should be concerned, but I do think there are ways in which we might be able to manage our relationship with the internet more effectively.”

As for our own take? It’s kind of a tricky question. Maybe we’ll Google it.