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I stopped Googling everything, and this is what happened to my brain

By giving up Google, aka my external memory, would my flaccid, idling brain get a little boost? I tried it.
A creative brain
Are our phones making our brains lazy?Catherine MacBride / Getty Images

You're talking about movies with friends and there's this film you must tell them about. What was it called, that one about the thing, you know, with that actor, what's his name? You grab your phone, get your answer and conversation proceeds uninterrupted.

You solved the puzzle and all is well. But what about your brain? Is constantly feeding it the right answer —with your phone being a bottomless Pez dispenser of factoids — making it lazy? Does it eventually atrophy? Who needs an internal memory when we've got Siri?

I find myself drawing a blank more often than is comfortable. Names of movies, books, people I know, they flit across my consciousness leaving no wake, vanished when I try to recall them. Were the cautionary tales about the boozy college nights true? Did I kill too many brain cells? Or is my phone truly making my brain lazy? The only way to find out, I reasoned, was to stop using it as my external memory.

I'd do a little experiment, I decided, and stop reaching for my phone every time I needed an answer. Instead, I'd — gasp! — force myself to recall it. I'd be like the character in that film, the one about the Gen X-ers who befriend a cool 20-something couple with an analog fixation. “Let’s just not know what it is,” the young guy says when his 40-something friend automatically grabs his phone to look up something.

Who needs an internal memory when we've got Siri?

But what's the name of that film!? When it didn't surface I knew I'd have to cheat right out of the gate. This idea was important to my story. Journalistic necessity and all that. I didn't have enough clues to Google it, so I turned to Plan B and crowdsourced it on Facebook where I was immediately rewarded: While We're Young.

That was my only cheat. For a week no Googling the flotsam and jetsam of daily trivia. No Google Maps by default in the car, no crowdsourcing. In the process, I wondered, would my flaccid, idling brain get a little boost?

To find out, I asked Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. Surgeon General, president of the Canyon Ranch Institute, and author of "Canyon Ranch 30 Days to a Better Brain." The answer wasn't as cut and dried as I'd expected.

While many of us are certainly hooked on our phones, he assured me (to a degree comparable to heroin for addicted person), the answer isn't in yet on the lazy brain question, he said. In fact, he added, “your brain stays more engaged because you're providing more information.”

This constant information feed, it seems, can help us create more neural networks that will actually help us remember things.

What's more, he pointed out, not availing ourselves of immediate answers comes at a cost. Taking away the phone of a person who's addicted to it increases blood pressure and anxiety. And how about the cost of our time, and the stress?

I quickly understood this point while writing a travel story about Cleveland. In mentioning the city's lovely public square, I wanted to note that the designer was also behind New York's elevated park. Though I'd been there the name remained stubbornly out of reach.

My brain churned in the background all day searching for that elusive name. The knowledge that it was so readily available — just pick up your phone! — yet the fact that I couldn't access it indeed quickened my heart rate and raised my blood pressure. Hours later, after spacing out during a TV show, after running through hundreds of word combinations — I knew it was two one-syllable words — it hit me. “The High Line!” I whooped. I won't lie. It was a sweet victory. But what had happened here?

Think of our brains like computers, Dr. Carmona explained. Files are stored in a hierarchical fashion. Information that's taken in in a stressful situation becomes embedded (that's how memory evolved, after all, he said: think about the first time a human saw a lion eat a man. “I need to remember that!” said the witness's brain.) Important information — our address, names of loved ones — is kept front and center. Less critical information gets tucked away in the stacks. “It's been filed, it's back there,” he said. “The question is can you recall it?”

Not always. Challenges came and went through the week. The name of a friend's partner (which I solved by reciting men's names until I hit the right one). A market I liked in Paris (leading to a long conversation with my friend from there that included drawing maps in the air and convoluted descriptions of neighborhoods. “Just look it up!" her husband urged, the opposite of that film scene, because in this case he's the younger friend.) And then, my stumper. This most trivial bit of information has kept me awake at night, stolen my attention from the season premiere of Game of Thrones, and in general driven me bonkers.

It doesn't mean your brain is getting lazy. It's just that Google searches faster.

Richard Carmona, MD

I can't think of the name of the housekeeper on Downton Abbey. I've seen the entire series. Twice. I know the name of the Turkish man who died in season one. The names of other minor characters break free and come floating to the surface of my mind like so many bits of seaweed from the ocean floor. I know Daisy, Mrs. Patmore. Anna and Mr. Bates. Mary and little George. But the head housekeeper remains nameless. The harder I try to remember, the more stubbornly that meaningless scrap of information eludes me. It's wildly frustrating. Why can't I remember?

Apparently my brain didn't know this was a high value detail. If your brain isn't aware you really need something, Dr. Carmona said, it's kept in the stacks, requiring a search. And that's perfectly normal, he said. “It doesn't mean your brain is getting lazy.” It's just that Google searches faster.

The experiment concludes today. Do I feel smarter, my brain any zippier?

Nah. If I want to build my cognitive ability, as the good doctor calls it, maybe I'll take up crosswords. And I should consider the other elements he says are equally important in warding off dementia: eating well, sleeping enough, exercising. I might give myself a few extra moments from now on to see if I can retrieve a wily bit of info — it is a triumphant feeling to fish out that prize catch. But I won't subject myself to any more tortured nights starring the Downtown Abbey cast. I've learned that for me it's not better to just not know. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Google that housekeeper's name.


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