Learning to rely on my brain more, and Search Engines less.
I google everything. Or just about.
I google recipes to cook and restaurants to try. I google shops and products, movies and books. I google when I can’t remember the name of that one actor in that movie from the nineties. I google health and fitness questions. I google questions about how to start a blog, plant a garden, or get involved in my community. I google any and all queries that come to mind. And it’s exhausting.
I’m not alone in this phenomenon either. As part of the Google Generation, I grew up with the internet from an early age. I remember first learning about search engines and using them to find information. I was in third grade. Back then my teacher touted Mamma.com and AltaVista as the go-to online search tools, both of which no longer exist as search engines. My searches used to look up facts as we learned about Australia and sea animals. They were basic and clunky.
As I got older, the searches only became more frequent and more important. By high school I had a smartphone, my own personal laptop, and a tablet. Three separate devices I could use to search anything and everything at any time of the day. It’s how I wrote research papers, learned about interesting new subjects, and even stumbled upon the shadier side of the internet through porn and sexually-explicit chat sites.
The ability to have instant information at our fingertips is an amazing accomplishment of humankind. We are more educated than ever before, thanks largely in part due to the widespread use of the internet. We can learn about any subject at the click of a button. We can converse with native speakers over video chat when learning a language. We can play fun games to learn geography or coding. The internet is an amazing tool, but perhaps it’s taken over too much of our lives.
Take today for instance. Barely an hour after I had woken up, I had already googled a dozen different things. “How many non-citizens live in the US?” “En dash vs em dash.” “Stock Images.” “Likelihood of dying while abroad.” Several math equations. And even “why do I feel the urge to google everything?”
That last question sounds like a joke, but it’s not. I have realized that any time I have a question or thought, the first place I turn is google. Whether it’s a legitimate question, or a weird feeling I have, I want to know what the internet tells me. But it comes at a cost. It’s taken away by ability to properly self-reflect or recall information quickly.
Mental Health Concerns
I want any and all of my feelings corroborated by strangers on the internet. When I’m anxious about my relationship, job, or family, I know someone out there has probably experienced the exact same thing. It’s nice and comforting, but often takes away my ability to self-reflect. I don’t dwell on my feelings or try to find concrete solutions. No, I merely skip on over to the internet to find validation and join the ranting and complaining that happens there.
And what happens, I leave more anxious than when I started. If I’ve had a fight with my partner, I can find countless stories of similar fights between people that ended the relationship. If I’m worried about a weird mole on my back, I can find plenty of “evidence” that it’s definitely cancer. It’s confirmation bias at its worst.
But it’s not only the mental health concerns caused by the internet that I worry about. I also am deeply concerned by how too much internet searching is affecting my cognitive ability and memory.
When I forget something, I can look it up. If it’s a trivia fact I once thought I knew, I can find it instantly, without any real research or digging. I can even have Google read the answer aloud to me as I complete another task like driving.
Instead of searching through all the old information in my brain, I pull it up at the click of a button. This makes my brain feel lazy and useless. Sure, maybe I’ll learn and remember the year Michael Jordan was born after I googled it, but chances are it will slip away again 20 minutes later. Because I know I can Google it again in the future. And this is leading to real, neurological changes in the way we think, process, and even store information. It’s called “digital amnesia,” and it scares the shit out of me.
However, there are also proponents of the internet that say that we are freeing up that space for more important functioning. They say that the internet acts as a kind of group memory, holding information we don’t need immediately, so we can do what we do best — think and innovate.
While this could be great, it still puts much of our reliance into a technological system that is still relatively new. It has been around for a couple decades now, but not long enough to fully understand its long-term effects on a generation. And we won’t know. Not until Millennials and Gen Zers are much older. So, for now, I’ve taken steps into my own hands.
Regaining my Brain
Recently, I started participating in Tuesday trivia night at a local bar. Together, me and four friends get together and try to recall obscure answers to questions in categories like music, science, film, and TV, and more.
It’s frustrating when we get a question that is on the tips of our tongues. We can identify the melody of a song, but not the name. We can identify the region a city is in but can’t remember the exact country. It’s hard and constantly makes me want to pull out my phone to look up all the answers. But I don’t.
And you know what? It’s better that way. It forces us to dig deep in our memories for clues. And work together using pieces that we remember to cobble together an answer. We take educated guesses, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t. But we’ve worked our brains and it feels nice. And often, I find myself remembering those details better than if I had looked them up.
Plus, I spend two hours completely away from my phone, interacting in person. This not only helps my cognitive ability; it lowers my anxiety as well. It’s two hours I can’t get sucked down a rabbit hole or anxiously check the news. It’s a break from my phone I didn’t realize I needed.
It’s a small first step, I’ll admit. But it’s led to bigger gains. Leaving my phone in another room while I cooked dinner or went to the store used to be something I’d never do. What if I needed to Google something? But now, 20 minutes away, an hour away, a whole afternoon away won’t hurt me. And I’m starting to embrace that.
I’ll always still rely heavily on the internet. I did so to write this article, find jobs, and seek out great opportunities. But I, like many of my peers, have a lot of work to do by balancing our online and offline lives. I’m hoping by stepping away from my Google obsession more, I can rely on my own brain to remember and reflect. The way it should be.