“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men;

No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” — Elbert Hubbard

Brains with extraordinary memory are becoming ordinary with the advent of the Internet (Net)! It seems the human cortex is undergoing an evolutionary change by remapping the neural circuitry and re-organising the way we remember things. In the earlier decades, we used to remember lots of information, necessarily, as we didn't have search engines like Google and databases such as Amazon.com, IMDb.com, etc., which serve as external memory where information is stored collectively outside ourselves. The focus now is on remembering only the access to information on the Net rather than the contents, thus saving ourselves a lot of ‘brain power' for doing something other than the mundane activity of rote memorising.

Recent studies indicate that people are getting more and more primed to click on a computer rather than engaging in interpersonal intellectual communication with colleagues or friends. They are getting more cocooned. The balance that the Net has brought is making people think, read and memorise differently which some refer to as “Google effect.” Some aver that the easy availability of information on the Net is leading to ‘intellectual laziness,' making them less ‘memory-oriented' on certain aspects. The studies have revealed a declining trend in memorising textual information, which, anyway, is just a click away.

Thus the Net is playing the part of external or trans-active memory stored outside our bodies, relegating the brains to act as index pages. But we may use the spare capacity of the brain for a myriad other purposes. And it is neither necessary nor possible to memorise detailed texts of information pertaining even to the narrow field of specialisation of an individual. It would be profitable to utilise the memory power for something more creative and innovative. Moreover, we have developed a tendency to forage the Web's info-thickets, reading, scanning highlights and blog-spots, zooming on videos and listening to podcasts and jumping from link to link to hyperlink, and zipping along the Net surface on a Jet Ski which robs us of some memory reserve and time. And these days, we have to skim through the vast amount of information to keep ourselves updated on multiple fronts.

With all this, who has the time to savour Romeo and Juliet and War and Peace? We just shouldn't blame the Internet or Google for its “side-effects.” The advantages are too many to condemn them. It is just a need-based evolution, and we should be prudent to have, in our limited human memory, a balanced and need-based information tempered with wisdom which is the ultimate asset.

There is a sea change brought about by the “Internet effect,” if it may be called so. Researchers, led by psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, have studied this paradigm shift in memory, called the “Google effect,” and indicated that people have a poor recall of knowledge from their memory if they knew where that knowledge could easily be found on the Internet, but at the same time they are more adept at remembering information on how to get access to it on the Net through links, hyperlinks, etc. Internet search engines are making people ‘lose their memory,' as information could easily be retrieved from the Internet.

In the olden days, people used to gather information from friends and co-workers or classmates. Now, with this ‘Google effect,' people are increasingly bypassing discussions with friends and colleagues. They are becoming more dependent on computers and getting isolated with decreasing personal dialogues. The trend is not to memorise data which are readily accessible on the Net but to utilise the blank brain for something more worthwhile.

This phenomenon is replacing a person's circle of friends with the Internet. People are relying more on their computers as a form of ‘external memory' as online information libraries ‘wired' human brains. Some say that this state of being so ‘wired' may have deleterious effects on society over the coming decades. Any novelty is met with suspicion, derision and resistance. While there is always a tendency to glorify a new tool, there is also a counter-tendency to decry it. Did not Socrates, in Plato's Phaedrus, bemoan the development of writing, fearing that it would make people forgetful due to a lack of exercise to memorise? When the Gutenberg's printing press arrived in the 15th century, did not the Italian humanist, Hieronimo Squarciafico, express concern that print material would weaken the minds through intellectual laziness?

However, now, ironically, people have come to be dependent more on computers and to rely more on the Internet than human beings — even doctors for treatment. In this context, I cite the case of Kumar — it is his pseudonym. He came to me for cough and fever of two months' duration. I examined him thoroughly and did a few basic investigations. I concluded that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) and prescribed medicines. He looked askance when I pronounced that the problem was TB, perhaps thinking that I made a rash diagnosis.

He returned after a week and said that he had not started taking the medicines. I found that Kumar ‘learnt' a lot about tuberculosis by browsing on the Net during the previous week. Diagnosis of TB was not acceptable to him. He said he read about more tests for TB and wished that those tests be done. He got them done — Tuberculin Test, IgG, IgA, IgM, sputum studies, PCR, CT scan, etc. Some of them came out to be negative for TB which further confounded him.

I tried to convince him saying that recently (2011) the World Health Organisation recommended against going by blood tests based on antibody response for diagnosing active TB and that these expensive tests are intensively promoted by vested interests. It didn't cut ice with him. He said he wanted to wait for the results of culture and sensitivity tests as he gathered information on the Google about the ‘disastrous' side-effects caused by the drugs and the dangers of drug resistance! And he asked me about taking the medicine Imitanib (Gleevec) which has just (2011) been suggested to be used in TB. While this tech-savvy patient knows a lot about this drug, most of the doctors never even heard of it! He let the precious time pass by, thanks to the Net for the overload of information. Consequently, due to delay in commencing treatment, Kumar had a bout of haemoptysis (coughing out of blood) and landed in an Intensive Care Unit, fighting for life. This is another kind of “Internet (Google) effect!”

Teacher: Show me the homework done yesterday.

Student: Sir, I uploaded it on Facebook and tagged you!

(The writer is a pulmonologist at the ‘Pay what you can' Clinic, Perundurai, Erode district, Tamil Nadu. drtramaprasad@gmail.com)

Keywords: Google

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