Illustrations: George(s)

How to Think Without Googling

It’ll be difficult, but it’s possible

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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.

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Jacqueline Detwiler
Forge
Writer for

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.