Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the book, Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig (Hudson Street Press, 2012). Copyright © Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig. Robin Henig has written several articles for Scientific American, including "When Does Life Belong to the Living?" and "How Depressed Is That Mouse?".
With all the emails, tweets, chats, and status updates continually vying for brain space, young people these days are slave to what’s been called “continuous partial attention.” One study of college students found that 84 percent get instant messages, Facebook updates, texts, or other interruptions at least once in any given hour; 19 percent get them at least six times every hour. And for 12 percent, the interruptions occur so often that they’ve lost count.
Those incessant distractions don’t bode well for the brain, wrote journalist Nicholas Carr in a controversial cover story in The Atlantic in 2008, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” With our attention constantly splintered, he wrote, our brains might be subtly rewired, leading to a younger generation less and less capable of thinking deep thoughts. “What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence,” Carr wrote in an online symposium about his article hosted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”
Defenders of Google say it frees up people’s brains for more important stuff than data entry and retrieval. “Holding in your head information that is easily discoverable on Google will no longer be a sign of intelligence, but a side-show act,” wrote Alex Halavais of the Association of Internet Researchers in that same symposium in response to Carr’s lament. Once your mind is clear of actual facts, goes his argument, you have room for sophisticated analysis and problem-solving. I’m reminded of my brother’s uncanny ability to recite, since he was fourteen, the first thirty-six digits of pi. It was amusing, but it didn’t make him any better at math than the guy with pi programmed into his TI-89.
Googling has, arguably, made Millennials less able than any previous group of twentysomethings to retain information. Recent research suggests that they use Google as a sort of auxiliary memory. In 2011 a team of psychologists led by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia gave 60 undergrads a bunch of trivia (on the order of “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”) and asked them to type all forty factoids into a computer. Half were told that the file containing these facts would be accessible later; half were told the file would be erased. On a subsequent test of memory, the ones who thought everything would be erased remembered much more. When they believed their document would be saved, Sparrow found, they didn’t bother remembering it; they figured they could always find it (or, as it’s called outside the lab, Google it) when they needed to.
And maybe it’s not just pervasive googling that interferes with memorization; it might be reliance on the computer keyboard itself. Some studies suggest that the best way to retain information is to write it out in longhand, which activates a tactile connection between the words and the brain that might be skipped by typing. Karin Harman James, a neuroscientist at Indiana University, recently asked a group of college students to transcribe a passage in one of three ways: by writing it out in cursive, by writing it out using print, or by typing it. One week later, she brought them back to the lab and asked them to recall as much of the passage as they could. Those who had written it out in cursive—the old-fashioned way, the way that’s hardly even taught in schools anymore—remembered significantly more than either of the other two groups. This no doubt has implications for Millennials’ ability to remember what they write, since even young people who use longhand, which is rare enough, tend to choose printing over script.