The Internet is making my brain lazy

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

For the life of me, I couldn't remember what happened to the hostages.

I was in the midst of telling a friend a story about the crew of a commercial tanker being taken hostage by Somali pirates - and I couldn't remember how it ended.

I recalled some details, like that the crew spent years in captivity and that they were mostly Pakistani and Middle Eastern. I had, after all, read a 3,000-word magazine article about their ordeal from start to finish just a few weeks ago.

But try as I might, I could not summon the information I knew had once passed through my brain about their ultimate fate.

The conversation trailed off tepidly and my friend gave me a weird look before turning back to his phone screen.

I pondered my deteriorating memory, which I've noticed for a while. Age is an accomplice, but I knew the true culprits were the devices that have replaced books and papers in my life.

The drawbacks of reading on screens versus reading on paper have been well documented in various studies.

I don't remember the details because I read about them online.

Suffice it to say, when reading text on a digital device, we skim more, and comprehend and retain less.

A lot of it has to do with the physicality of the reading experience.

The brain maps information spatially - it remembers a certain piece of information that was on the top right hand-corner of the page about mid-way through the book, for example - and so the uninterrupted block of text that digital screens present leaves us literally disoriented.

This all makes intuitive sense and I'm not alone in having walked back my digital reading after an initial period of wanton frolic in the fields of apps and e-books.

The thing is, I read that pirates article in an actual three-dimensional magazine I held in my hands - something I was doing precisely to retain more information from my reading.

The Internet quickly told me that it was to blame.

Studies have actually shown that knowing about the Internet - and feeling assured that they have access to it - actually makes people retain less information when reading something.

That is, people don't try as hard to remember information if they know that they can Google it later.

It's not even a conscious decision, the way we might just skim an e-mail message if we know we can look at it properly on our phones later on the way to the meeting.

Rather, the brain automatically slacks off when it knows it is reading something that's on the Internet, that is, everything.

What this means is that the hardest our brains may be working at any time is in ascertaining whether or not there is Wi-Fi.

It's chilling and yet unsurprising that my brain has so quickly skidded down this path, given my familiarity with the depths of human laziness.

After all, I could find out what happened to those hostages with an instant search of "pirates somali new yorker" - and indeed I had the article at the top of my screen in 0.03 seconds.

"The Internet has become a primary form of external memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves," wrote one researcher, whose name I skimmed past, because names and titles are the kind of thing you copy- and-paste without reading.

At this point, I should engage in some hand-wringing and head-shaking about how technology is destroying our moral and social fibre etc etc.

But to be honest, it doesn't seem like such a terrible development to me, all things considered.

Really, why did we need all that memorising anyway?

Surely having almost all information easily and instantly accessible is a form of neurological automation that's freeing up space to be more productive.

Surely freeing up the space where that actor's name or that currency rate or the date of that historical development used to be will only help us do better in activities we can't rely on the Internet for - performing open-heart surgery, or driving, or policy-making.

In fact, I'm convinced that this category of "information we require that we can't rely on the Internet for" will only shrink over time.

There will come a day, perhaps in my lifetime, that so much of our collective memory is stored outside us, accessible in a flash through some sort of implant, that we won't even remember why we once worried that we couldn't remember anything.

Activities such as reading will then become almost entirely experiential, rather than acquisitional; just about the simple, pure pleasure of encountering beautiful words and stories.

I wouldn't be able to tell you what happened to the hostages. But I could say for sure that I enjoyed the tale.

rchang@sph.com.sg