Are Our Brains Trading Breadth for Depth?

In last week’s column, I looked at how efficient our brains are. Essentially, if there’s a short cut to an end goal identified by the brain, it will find it. I explained how Google is eliminating the need for us to remember easily retrievable information. I also speculated about how our brains may be defaulting to an easier form of communication, such as texting rather than face-to-face communication.

Personally, I am not entirely pessimistic about the “Google Effect,” where we put less effort into memorizing information that can be easily retrieved on demand. This is an extension of Daniel Wegner’s “transactive memory,” and I would put it in the category of coping mechanisms. It makes no sense to expend brainpower on something that technology can do easier, faster and more reliably. As John Mallen noted in last week's comments section, this is like using a calculator rather than memorizing times tables.

Reams of research have shown that our memories can be notoriously inaccurate. In this case, I partially disagree with Nicholas Carr. I don’t think Google is necessarily making us stupid. It may be freeing up the incredibly flexible power of our minds, giving us the opportunity to redefine what it means to be knowledgeable.  Rather than a storehouse of random information, our minds may have the opportunity to become more creative integrators of available information. We may be able to expand our “meta-memory” -- Wegner’s term for the layer of memory that keeps track of where to turn for certain kinds of knowledge. Our memory could become an index of interesting concepts and useful resources, rather than ad-hoc scraps of knowledge.

Of course, this positive evolution of our brains is far from a given. And here Carr may have a point. There is a difference between “lazy” and “efficient.” Technology’s freeing up of the processing power of our brain is only a good thing if that power is then put to a higher purpose. Carr’s book “The Shallows” is a warning that, rather than freeing up our brains to dive deeper into new territory, technology may just give us the ability to skip across the surface of the titillating.  Will we waste our extra time and cognitive power going from one piece of brain candy to the other, or will we invest it by sinking our teeth into something important and meaningful?

A historical perspective gives us little reason to be optimistic. We evolved to balance the efforts required to find food with the nutritional value we got from that food. It used to be damned hard to feed ourselves, so we developed preferences for high-calorie, high-fat foods that would go a long way once we found them. Thanks to technology, the only effort required today to get these foods is to pick them off the shelf and pay for them.  We could have used technology to produce more nutritious foods, but market demands determined that we’d become an obese nation of junk food eaters. Will the same thing happen to our brains?

I am even more concerned with the short cuts that seem to be developing in our social networking activities. Typically, our social networks are built both from strong ties and weak ties. Mark Granovetter identified these two types of social ties in the '70s. Strong ties bind us to family and close friends. Weak ties connect us with acquaintances. When we hit rough patches, as we inevitably do, we treat those ties very differently. Strong ties are typically much more resilient to adversity. When we hit the lowest points in our lives, it’s the strong ties we depend on to pull us through.

Weak ties are a whole different matter. We have minimal emotional investments in these relationships. Typically, we connect with these ties either through serendipity or when we need something that only they can offer. For example, we typically reinstate our weak tie network when we’re on the hunt for a job. LinkedIn is the virtual embodiment of a weak tie network.  And if we have a difference of opinion with someone to whom we’re weakly tied, we just shut down the connection.

Weak ties are easily built. All we need is just one thing in common at one point in our lives. It could be working in the same company, serving on the same committee, or living in the same neighborhood. Then, we just need some way to remember them in the future.

Strong ties are different, since they develop over time, evolving through both positive and negative shared experiences. They also demand consistent communication, including painful communication that sometimes requires us to say we were wrong and we’re sorry. It’s the type of conversation that leaves you either emotionally drained or supercharged that is the stuff of strong ties. And a healthy percentage of these conversations should happen face-to-face.  Could you build a strong tie relationship without ever meeting face-to-face? We’ve all heard examples, but I’d always place my bets on face-to-face, every time.

It’s the hard work of building strong ties that I fear we may miss as we build our relationships through online channels. I worry that the brain, given an easy choice and a hard choice, will naturally opt for the easy one. Online, our network of weak ties can grow beyond the inherent limits of our social inventory, known as Dunbar’s Number (which is 150, by the way).  We could always find someone with which to spend a few minutes texting or chatting online. Then we can run off to the next one. We will skip across the surface of our social network, rather than invest the effort and time required to build strong ties. Just like our brains, our social connections may trade breadth for depth.
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4 comments about "Are Our Brains Trading Breadth for Depth?".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 26, 2014 at 12:50 p.m.
    Learning the times tables allow us to "see" how things are made, begins the thinking process...simply stated. They are the building blocks. Including face to face, these are the connections to the universe in the tribe of living things and the tribe of animals.
  2. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting , June 26, 2014 at 2:22 p.m.
    Paula..did we really learn the times table..or just memorize them? I'm sure our generation took our own short cuts (I remember calculators being banned in the classroom for Math). But I agree with you that curiosity about "how" and "why" is the difference and that's actually the topic for next week's column.
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 26, 2014 at 8:44 p.m.
    I am looking forward to reading your column next week. Yes, we did memorize. However, I specifically remember have the table up on a board all the time, staring at it and seeing the where and why, not to mention learning to read a graph.
  4. Sharon Gant from Knox County Schools , June 27, 2014 at 2:29 p.m.
    I work with small children. All bits of memorized information are building blocks toward understanding of our world and communicating what we know with anyone else. Memorization is vital for all of us. It provides the springboard from which we access further information.