Pros And Cons Of A Fuel-Efficient Brain

Your brain will only work as hard as it has to. And if it makes you feel any better, my brain is exactly the same. That’s the way brains work. They conserve horsepower until it’s absolutely needed. In the background, the brain is doing a constant calculation: “What do I want to achieve -- and based on everything I know, what is the easiest way to get there?” You could call it lazy, but I prefer the term “efficient.”

The brain has a number of tricks to do this that involve relatively little thinking. In most cases, they involve swapping something that’s easy for your brain to do in place of something difficult. For instance, consider voting in an election. It would be extraordinarily difficult, requiring a ton of brainpower, to weigh all the factors involved and make a truly informed vote. But it’s very easy to vote for someone you like. We have a number of tricks we use to immediately assess whether we like and trust another individual. They require next to no brainpower. Guess how most people vote? Even those of us who pride ourselves on being informed voters rely on these brain shortcuts more than we would like to admit.

Here’s another example that’s just emerging, thanks to search engines. It’s called the Google Effect, and it’s an extension of a concept called Transactive Memory. Researchers Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu and Daniel Wegner identified the Google Effect in 2011. Wegner first explained transactive memory back in the '80s. Essentially, it means that we won’t both to remember something that we can easily reference when we need it. When Wegner first talked about transactive memory in the '80s, he used the example of a husband and wife. The wife was good at remembering important dates, such as anniversaries and birthdays. The husband was good at remembering financial information, such as bank balances and when bills were due. The wife didn’t have to remember financial details and the husband didn’t have to worry about dates. All they had to remember was what the other person was good at memorizing. Wegner called this “chunking” of our memory requirements “metamemory.”

If we fast-forward 30 years from Wegner’s original paper, we find a whole new relevance for transactive memory, because we now have the mother of all “metamemories”, called Google. If we hear a fact but know it's something that can easily be looked up on Google, our brains automatically decide to expend little to no effort in trying to memorize it. Subconsciously, the brain goes into power-saver mode.  All we remember is that when we do need to retrieve the fact, it will be a few clicks away on Google. Nicholas Carr fretted about whether this and other cognitive shortcuts were making us stupid in his book “The Shallows.”

But there are other side effects that come from the brain’s tendency to look for shortcuts without our awareness. I suspect the same thing is happening with social connections. Which would you think required more cognitive effort: a face-to-face conversation with someone, or texting them on a smartphone?

Face-to-face conversation can put a huge cognitive load on our brains. We’re receiving communication at a much greater bandwidth than with text.   When we’re across from a person, we not only hear what they’re saying; we’re reading emotional cues, watching facial expressions, interpreting body language and monitoring vocal tones. It’s a much richer communication experience, but it’s also much more work. It demands our full attention. Texting, on the other hand, can easily be done along with other tasks. It’s asynchronous -- we can pause and pick up whenever we want.

I suspect it's no coincidence that younger generations are moving more and more to text based digital communication. Their brains are pushing them in that direction because it’s less work.

One of the great things about technology is that it makes our life easier. But is that also a bad thing? If we know that our brains will always opt for the easiest path, are we putting ourselves in a long, technology-aided death spiral? That was Carr’s contention. Or, are we freeing up our brains for more important work?

More on this to come next week.
Tags: technology
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2 comments about "Pros And Cons Of A Fuel-Efficient Brain ".
  1. John Mallen from JMC Marketing Communications , June 19, 2014 at 1:32 p.m.
    Brilliant. Now I understand why I will default to the calculator on the iPhone when I'm working simple arithmetic! But when it comes to dialogue with others, I wonder if the ease of texting will create space for person-to-person conversations? In the business world, especially the B2B environment of the complex sale, the trend to digital comms could make in-person contact refreshing and distinctive - like receiving a letter in the mail.
  2. InterMarine Boats from InterMarine, Inc. , June 19, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.
    Depending on someone (or something) else to remember things has always made me a little uncomfortable. What happens when said person or thing is no longer available? We have to re-open our brains to process information at that point, and when you haven't "practiced" something in a long time - in this case, memorizing things- restarting that skill will be even harder. Now, is texting easier than talking face to face? Yes, it is a lot easier. Is it better? No, for the same reason that many of us still prefer to pick up a real book than read it on a mobile device: the tangible experience is so much better than the digital one, even if it is more work. There is a whole breadth of the experience that gets missed with the digital versions, and I think a lot of people (young and old) realize that.