Illustrations: George(s)

How to Think Without Googling

SoSo earlier this year I was riding a janky bike alone through Burning Man’s makeshift city grid. Identical military-style tents extended into the darkness on both sides of the “street” in the middle of the Nevada desert. There was a lot of neon. I was lost.

My brain, which is a good brain full of good ideas, invited me to check Google Maps.

“No, brain,” I said, in my head. “There is no signal in the middle of the desert.”

“Sure, but have you checked Google Maps?” my brain replied, in the same way it relentlessly presents me with “Mambo №5” by Lou Bega.

I actually reached for my phone. “Good one, brain! Still no signal though.”

“Oh right sure. Maybe instead you should… check Google Maps?”

“NO, BRAIN, NOT FUCKING GOOGLE MAPS,” I said out loud. And that’s how I came to be audibly arguing with myself in the middle of the desert in a bondage bikini.

IfIf it’s also 2019 where you are, I’m sure you have had a similar experience. Maybe you’ve reached for your phone to map directions to a friend’s house that you’ve walked dozens of times, or calculate the square root of four, or find instructions for making your own mother’s bolognese. Maybe, in the middle of a conversation, you’ve searched for and repeated verbatim the Wikipedia definition of something really obvious, like “rice.” (I don’t know your life.) At the very least, you are familiar with the shallow, unfocused experience of outsourcing some of your thinking to the internet. People have been worried about technology making us more stupid for a long time.

Despite the dour headlines, for most of the last decade, scientists haven’t offered much official insight into e-thinking™ beyond “we don’t really know what’s happening.” Now, a group of respected researchers has put together a first-of-its-kind international review of studies on the topic. Their conclusion: We don’t really know what’s happening.

“I think it’s still too early to know how it’s helping, how it’s hurting, and when it’s not doing anything,” says John Torous, one of the study’s authors, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.

But while scientists have yet to prove the internet is rewiring and/or dumbing down our brains, it is becoming clear that some of our mental processes and habits are worth looking into. Is there a problem to solve? And if so, is there a solution other than throwing your phone into the darkness of the Nevada desert, then spending hours searching for it in the dark?

Probably not. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that our limited-but-also-amazing meat-brains came before the shiny, crystal vastness of the internet. Those brains still work even when they’re not plugged in. In fact, in some ways, they work a lot better.

Taking time for silence, interiority, and deep thinking is probably the best way to push your brain to reverse any disadvantageous adaptations to our online lives.

But quitting the internet isn’t a real option. “I think we’re past the point where you can say ‘I’m not going to use technology,’” says Torous. A recent Pew survey found that 81% of American adults own a smartphone. Trying to live fully without one in today’s world might be as hard on your brain as just giving in and using it.

So let’s talk about the mental processes cognitive psychologists consider when trying to figure out how the internet is changing how we think: The first is attention, which scientists define as selectively concentrating on some information while ignoring the rest. Another is memory, which you can probably define yourself. (There’s also a lot of weird social and sleep stuff going on, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Definitely check it out though, because wow.)

Then we’ll take a stab at fixing them.

Why you feel like you can’t pay attention to anything

You probably think of attention in scholastic terms — a teacher admonishing you for not paying attention to his history lecture. But in psychology, it’s much bigger than that. Attention acts as a mental spotlight for everything you encounter — selecting which elements of your environment you perceive, interact with, and remember later. Some researchers believe attention is everything in human consciousness. But it is also limited, and can get tired like a muscle.

Like sugar or cocaine for other parts of the brain, the internet is an unnaturally powerful stimulus for attention. It offers an unprecedented amount of information near-constantly, placing a ton of demand on a system designed to function in the small-to-medium social networks of the natural world. Information has historically saved humans from poison plants, freezing to death, natural disasters, and wedding speech faux pas (among other things), so it’s perfectly natural for your brain to want to suck down as much juicy, compelling information as possible.

“I think one thing people are probably feeling is the burden of task-switching when you’re asking the brain to switch literally from one tab to a different tab on the desktop or go from one screen to a different screen,” Torous says. A combination of trying to protect oneself from boredom and a fear of missing out has led most people to do this more than they realize. (Just look at the number of tabs, programs, and screens you have open right now.)

In 2014, a group of researchers out of Stanford University found that people switch between content on computers as often as every 19 seconds, with 75% of on-screen content viewed for less than a minute. Young people do this constantly, spending an average of 7.5 hours a day engaging with media, with 29% of that time juggling multiple streams.

Here’s an example of how hard multitasking is on attention: You’re trying to think deeply about a work report, but it’s boring. You know what’s not boring? The internet. You start to sweat as the sheer quantity of informational and social rewards calls to you. Politics. Social invitations. The mildly interesting subreddit. You click on Twitter, contribute a gif to a witty post, retweet an “Important Article,” feel relief, and lose 15 minutes.

Wait. What were you supposed to be doing?

You drag your attention back to the work report, but soon your arousal starts creeping up again. Those shoes I want. Funny article. Podcast? The process repeats, and the report inches along because your brain simply doesn’t have enough time or energy in between interruptions. There’s some very upsetting research showing that no matter how good you think you are at multitasking, the time lost to task- and context-switching over the course of a day can quickly ravage your available mental energy.

Jenny Odell, the artist and writer who published How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy this spring, has a potential solution for all this. And that solution is… crows?

“I don’t know if you can hear that, but that’s literally my crow in the background yelling at me,” says Jenny Odell when I reach her. “They have this thing where I think they know that I’m on the phone.” Odell discovered that the crows that lived in her neighborhood liked it when she threw peanuts over the edge of her balcony for them to dive and catch. So she took a break from working and befriended them. “They’d do twists, barrel rolls, and loops, which I made slow-motion videos of with the obsessiveness of a proud parent,” she writes.

Odell’s crow thing is related to her night heron thing, which is related to her overall ethos, which is: resisting the internet’s pull on her attention with the fire of a political protester. One time Odell, who lives in Oakland and teaches at Stanford, cataloged 200 objects she found at the dump over the course of three months. She appreciates how her brain operates during periods of stillness, which she now sometimes has to schedule.

Odell’s theory is that trying to reclaim your attention from the internet isn’t entirely a fight against the internet. It’s a fight against a society that’s obsessed with the inhuman pace of productivity made possible by the internet. “Sometimes [productivity] doesn’t look like anything,” she says. “Sometimes it looks like going for a walk.” It’s just that most bosses don’t condone going for a walk when you could be sitting at your desk. “In a weird, awful way, you adopt it for yourself,” Odell says. “If you don’t have something to show for your time, it’s a problem.”

Fighting a full-scale cultural battle alone is impossible, but you can practice ethical resistance, as Odell recommends. Close some of your tabs. Shut off your notifications. Don’t answer an email for a couple of days. Quit listening to podcasts at 1.5x-speed. Stop trying to be maximally productive, and see if you don’t become more productive anyway. I swear by reading important stories on paper in a chair with a cup of tea, like it’s the 1700s. Odell loves a Chrome extension called Facebook News Feed Eradicator, which replaces her news feed with a philosophical quote.

Taking time for silence, interiority, and deep thinking is probably the best way to push your brain to reverse any disadvantageous adaptations to our online lives. During early functional MRI studies, researchers noticed that a certain set of brain regions would activate together whenever subjects were not performing the task they were assigned. Originally this was assumed to be some sort of daydreaming or rest network, but eventually, scientists realized the network was involved in thinking about the self, thinking about others, remembering the past, considering the future, and making social evaluations.

That brain network, now known as the Default Mode Network, is associated with creativity and imagination. If you think about it as a light switch, it comes on whenever your task-oriented networks shut off. So if you and the internet are constantly performing “productivity” together — it stays dark.

All is not lost. The human brain is wonderfully adaptable, so much so that people who have had strokes can recruit nondamaged neurons to perform the functions of some brain areas they have lost. You can almost certainly refocus your attention. But you will have to adopt a human-centric pace to do it, and that may require bravery and effort.

Some researchers believe meditation can strengthen attention. Others believe it helps to spend time in nature and green spaces. You’ll have to allow yourself to become bored. Odell often writes “Do Nothing” on her calendar, even weeks in advance, so she can see it coming, and get excited about it. Even something as simple as taking a walk every day at a particular time or eating lunch without your phone could help your attention to return to itself.

Why you feel like you can’t remember anything

Here’s a disconcerting sentence for a scientist to say to you: Google might be altering the entire nature of your memory for facts.

Memory is vastly complicated, and the first thing you need to know is that it comes in a variety of subtypes:

  • Episodic memory is remembering “episodes” that have actually happened to you, such as your wedding day, the birth of your child, or what you ate for lunch.
  • Semantic memory is remembering facts like the sky is blue, or Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, or I went to Greenbriar Elementary School.
  • Procedural memory is remembering how to play the piano or drive your car.
  • Transactive memory is remembering that you can look in the dictionary to find out how to spell a word, or call your dad to ask how many cups of flour are in his biscuit recipe.

Transactive memory is really important. It’s behind most of the advances in human society. Over centuries, humans built on the saved knowledge of the minds who came before, through parents and teachers and books. And now, this vast and growing stockpile of information is not only constantly available, but also easily searchable (unless you’re using Bing).

Creating memories inside the brain takes energy. So now that all the information in the world is inside your phone, it stands to reason our brains might convert semantic memories, all those useless facts, to transactive ones. In short, Google is becoming an external memory drive. You can feel like you know something — and effectively be able to come up with the information — by remembering how to access it on the internet.

In conversation, this looks like: “Did you know Adele is dating some English rapper?”

“Wait… what? Who?”

“Hold on, let me look it up.”

Storing information this way is pretty terrible for retrieving it later. In another study cited in that international review, people who searched for facts online found them more quickly than people who searched for facts in encyclopedias did, but they were less able to recall the information.

Some speculate that recall is more difficult for facts learned on the internet because they are more poorly organized in the brain. In a recent article in Time, James W. Cortada, author of All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870, compared searching the internet to reading a book’s index, rather than the book itself: “One of the problems we have — and I don’t blame Google for this, it’s just the nature of the Internet — is that a lot of the time people will have bits and pieces of data flotsam, or whatever you want to call it, little pieces floating around in the ocean. There’s no connection other than the connection you want to make.”

In other words, the little boxes that appear at the top of Google searches have made it easier to locate facts by scanning — which, remember, you’re doing because your attentional resources are strained. But then those facts arrive free of context that would slot them appropriately in your broader knowledge. The result is a disjointed series of thoughts that you have trouble remembering and using later. The population of Toronto is 2.93 million. Cashews aren’t actually nuts. Sloths can hold their breath for 40 minutes.

Facts in our brains are organized differently, through networks of related concepts, stories, and what Cornell professor Valerie Reyna, who studies how people make decisions, calls “gist,” or the overall perception, of a topic. When you learn a new fact, your brain embeds it in a nest of everything else you know. The tighter you weave the connections, the more likely it is you’ll recall information you just learned.

So: If you want to remember facts better, use your newfound attentional resources to create a little contextual nest for your new fact to live in. Read up on some background. Pause every few minutes to consider what you just read and think about it in terms of things you already know: Adele and her rumored love interest, the grime artist Skepta, are both chart-topping superstars in the U.K., so that makes sense. Skepta has also reportedly dated the model Naomi Campbell. Oh, and Adele’s best albums are always break-up albums.

Other options include writing or just thinking about bullet-pointed concepts from what you’ve just read; drawing little images (perhaps of Adele and Skepta riding a tandem bike past Buckingham Palace); or mentally practicing telling the story to a friend later at a dinner party, which can be fun:

“Okay, guys. Adele is dating an English rapper named Skepta, who clearly has good taste. I really hope they make a joint album and then break up and each makes a break-up album and then just kind of repeat that forever so I can have really great music. I realize that’s mean but whatever. Is there more potato salad?”

And that’s how you fight the Googlification of your memory. Until either scientists or tech companies come up with more powerful solutions, it may be the best you can do.

Jacqui is the former articles editor at Popular Mechanics. Her work has appeared in Wired, Esquire, Men’s Health, and Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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