How the Brain Works With Google, GPS, and Other Technologies

See how five technologies scramble your brain: GPS turns you into a terrible driver, Google mucks with your memory, texting oblitertes yur spellnig skills, and more.

By Lauren Gelman
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    Google: Changes the way we remember

    With all pretty much all the information you’d ever need or want at your fingertips, the Internet must be obliterating our memory, right? Not exactly, according to some fascinating research from Columbia University professor Betsy Sparrow, PhD, published in the journal Science. By acting as a personal memory bank, the interwebs may make us better at remembering how and where to find information than the actual information itself.

    GPS: Makes you a worse driver

    We’ve all heard about those horrific-yet-hilarious stories about people who followed their GPS into the middle of a river, but these devices make it easy for your brain to fog out, according to research published in 2012 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The researchers found evidence that your brain has a limited capacity for processing too much information at one time, making it challenging, say, to both pay attention to directions on your GPS screen and the actual road in front of you.  

    "Focusing on remembering the directions we've just seen on the screen means that we're more likely to fail to observe other hazards around us on the road [like] an approaching motorbike or a pedestrian on a crossing, even though we may be 'looking' at where we're going,” study author Nilli Lavie, PhD, professor at the University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, told ScienceDaily.com.


    Cell phones: ‘Halfalogues’ distract and irritate

    Overhearing half a conversation—like someone on a cell phone—is far more distracting and annoying than listening to a dialogue between two people, according to new research from the University of San Diego. In the study, college students who were working on anagrams near a researcher who talked on her cell phone were much more likely to remember the conversation (and find it irritating) than students who did the puzzles near two people talking.

    Blame your brain’s desire to fill in the blanks. “If you only hear one person speaking, you’re constantly trying to place that part of the conversation in context,” lead study author and psychology professor Veronica V. Galvan, PhD, told the New York Times. “That’s naturally going to draw your attention away from whatever else you’re trying to do.

    Texting: Produces poor copy edtiors [sic]

    Autocorrect fails have become such a ubiquitous part of our nomenclature that there’s even a whole site dedicated to tracking them. But in addition to embarrassing us, sloppy texting may also make us less able to catch spelling mistakes while we read other material. That’s because the brain is adept at making sense of words as long as the first and last letters are the same (for example, the word "editors" above in headline of this slide), a skill that texting seems to enforce. When we get so used to “auto-correcting” our friends’ manic messages, we may also do it while proofing an important email or report for work, and overlook otherwise obvious spelling slip-ups.

    E-readers: Make it harder to remember what you read

    Ever find yourself re-reading (and re-reading) the same page in your Kindle? There’s a good reason for these “e-book moments,” research suggests. Psychologists at the University of Leicester in England found that when students read the same material on both e-books and print books, they had to read the digital books repeatedly to glean the same information.  

    The glitch may have to do with how sparse the e-books look compared with print. “The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled,” writes Maia Szalavitz at Time.com. “Seemingly irrelevant factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or bottom of the page—or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic—can help cement material in the mind.”

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