Are Our Brains Trading Breadth for Depth?

ebrain1In 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 Mallin commented, this is like using a calculator rather than memorizing times tables.

Reams of research has 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 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 title, “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 healthier and 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 70’s. 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. Our lifelines are made up of strong ties. If we have a disagreement with someone with whom we have a strong tie, we work harder to resolve it. We have made large investments in these relationships, so we are reluctant to let them go. When there are disruptions in our strong tie network, there is a strong motivation to eliminate the disruption, rather than sacrifice the network.

Weak ties are a whole different matter. We have minimal emotional investments in these relationships. Typically, we connect with these 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. We have plenty of them so one more or less won’t make that much of a difference. When there are disruptions in our weak tie network, we just change the network, deactivating parts of it and reactivating others.

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, living in the same neighborhood or attending the same convention. Then, we just need some way to remember them in the future. Strong ties are different. Strong ties develop over time, which means they evolve through shared experiences, both positive and negative. 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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