The Internet has wrought incredible changes to learning, both in what we can learn and the way that we learn it. Not only is the information of the world largely available (free of charge) at our fingertips, but we also increasingly have access to new ideas and bright minds from around the world.
Is all of this actually making us smarter though? There has been a great deal of discussion over the years on the impact of the Internet on our brains, with respected voices ranging from Nick Carr to Susan Greenfield suggesting that the web is actually making us dumber.
Whilst this may seem hard to understand given the tremendous opportunities the web affords us, a recent Yale-led study suggests they may have a point.
The study, which consisted of nine separate experiments, found that when we obtain knowledge online, we perceive our knowledge as much greater than we do when the knowledge is obtained through other channels.
“This was a very robust effect, replicated time and time again,” the researchers say. “People who search for information tend to conflate accessible knowledge with their own personal knowledge.”
For example, two groups were tasked with finding out how zippers work. One group looked online, whilst another were given more tangible resources to search in.
When the participants from the two groups were asked afterwards how good their knowledge was of unrelated domains, those from the online group believed their knowledge was far superior to that of the offline group.
Intriguingly, when the same participants were quizzed prior to the experiment, no such differences were present.
What’s more, this effect was so pronounced that people even had an inflated sense of their knowledge having answered the question incorrectly.
“The cognitive effects of ‘being in search mode’ on the Internet may be so powerful that people still feel smarter even when their online searches reveal nothing,” the authors reveal.
They go on to suggest that this sensation of the web being almost an appendage of our brain is particularly pronounced among younger people, where there could be a considerable distortion to our perceived knowledge levels caused by the degree with which we’re plugged into the net.