The Value of Struggle, and How You're Letting Technology Diminish It

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
The Value of Struggle, and How You're Letting Technology Diminish It

image by: Carlos Luna

You can find so much on the Internet. But if you want to increase your brainpower, you may be looking in the wrong place.

Many struggles we would be better off without. The struggle to find clean water and sufficient nourishment. The struggle of an Alzheimer's patient to hold on to herself. The struggle to manage chronic pain. There's nothing good in such struggles.

But there is a subclass of struggle that serves a higher function. Call them creative struggles, challenges to our minds to produce answers or solutions where initially it seems we have none. These struggles are a unique means to improving mental functioning.

However, an increasing percentage of the population is willing to trade in such struggle for convenience and ease. It's the latest fad in dumbing down of the general public, and you're carrying it around in your pocket.

I'm talking, of course, about the so-called "smartphone." Before anyone mistakes me for a technophobe, hey, I'm just like you. I have an iPhone in my left back pocket as I type these word—which I'm doing on a Macbook with a WiFi connection, which is to some extent a slightly less portable version of the potential problem I'm addressing.

That potential problem is the constant connectivity we have in today's world—"potential" because the Internet is merely a tool. Unfortunately, that tool is being widely used for the wrong jobs, making it an actual problem indeed.

Born in 1968 to an upper-middle-class family with ties to the computer industry, I have a perfect background for appreciating the integration of the personal computer into daily life. I recall reveling in the superiority of the word processer—pretty much the only purpose to which we put our c. 1980 PC—over the typewriter. Then came the mid-'80s high-school computer classes, the CD-ROM encyclopedias, e-mail and the pre-WWW Internet. So far, so good.

By the late '90s the Web had spun itself into something resembling what it we have today, but I, for one, had no inkling of the problem that was potentializing: having virtually any bit of data just a Google away.

The value of such data access is obvious. To cite the example most present to me, I couldn't be anywhere near so productive in generating the articles I write without the Web. With relative ease one can glean passable knowledge about damn near any subject under the sun. General knowledge, news articles, specialty journals—it's all there.

Any idiot can benefit from this ease of access, but that doesn't make it idiot-proof. My ability to employ that tool with discretion is informed by a background of journalism classes, writing graduate-level research papers for a Master's in English, and working a journalist for various newspapers and magazines. Checking for bias, cross-referencing multiple sources, and understanding the differences between primary and secondary source material are a few of the skills that help one use the Internet constructively.

Presuming the first article or answer that pops up on Google is the right one is only part of the problem, even when it is reliable, because oftentimes the wrong move was whipping out the smartphone in the first place.

I wrestled with a proto-version of this problem as a writer in my pre-Web days. Not infrequently in the midst of composing a piece I would find myself searching—i.e., mentally—for the precise word. When, I often wondered, should I resort to my trusty Roget's Thesaurus? At what point was it more than mere laziness, more than favoring convenience over cerebration?

Intuitively I understood that making my mind churn for a while was beneficial to the mental big picture. Hitting upon the right word may have been the immediate goal, but the mental exercise of struggling to produce it from my existing vocabulary was of greater value to my really knowing that word—along with related words, ideas, and concepts—as well as coming up with the best way to express myself, which ultimately may not have resulted from looking at a cluster of words on a printed page. I could always open the thesaurus after benefitting from the struggle, exercise likely to make the word I found there a more valuable data point and thus more likely to be recalled.

The parallel phenomenon vis-à-vis smartphones ranges far beyond the search for synonyms. "The third U.S. president," Andy Andriodlover might muse as he sits at a sidewalk cafe, "who the hell was that?" In earlier eras Andy would be forced to mull it over, in the process perhaps calling to consciousness the principle architects of the Constitution or related data points. If this proved insufficient, provided the question stuck with him by the time he returned home (and a psychological effect known as "the Zeigarnik effect" tells us that incomplete tasks stick with us more than completed ones) he would be forced to consult an almanac, encyclopedia, etc., which would provide not just the answer but related information, at least a bit of which might seep into his mind.

But today Andy would get "Thomas Jefferson" almost before he could finish spelling out "third U.S. president." It's an easier process, but one that packages the information as more disposable. Easy come easy go.

The results of a recent study performed at the University of Waterloo suggest that such a tilt away from struggle dulls the brain, with researchers finding that people who rely heavily on smartphones searches have lower cognitive abilities that people who don't.

Whether there is a causal connection between reliance on smartphone searches and brain function remains an open question. But considering that (to quote from a paper published in Behavioral Brain Research) "the now rather extensive literature show[s] that new neurons are kept alive by effortful learning, a process that involves concentration in the present moment of experience over some extended period of time," such a connection does not seem unlikely.

Related findings point toward overlapping ways in which your smartphone really may make you dumb. A just-published Yale University study, for example, shows that people who obtain information by way of Internet searches tend to harbor an inflated view of what they actually know. YaleNews's Bill Hathaway summarizes an example from the nine separate experiments carried out as part of the study:

[I]n one experiment people searched online for a website that answers the question, “How does a zipper work?” The control group received the same answer that they would have found online, but without searching for it themselves. When later asked how well they understood completely unrelated domains of knowledge, those who searched the Internet rated their knowledge substantially greater than those who were only provided text. Prior to the experiment, no such difference existed.

The effect was so strong that even when a full answer to a question was not provided to Internet searchers, they still had an inflated sense of their own knowledge.

“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,” said Frank Keil, the Charles C. and Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Psychology and Linguistics and senior author of the paper.

The valuation of convenience over labor did not come to pass with smartphone technology. How many times, for example, have you watched someone use a calculator to solve a math problem along the lines of "25 x 7"?  But the state of the art is providing ever more chances to obtain a lazy solution, to dodge the mental exercise that makes for a better brain.

As everyone knows by now, just because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's true. An extension of this truism is that just because you can find it on the Internet doesn't mean you should. Jumping online may be a way to get the answer you want, but it may not be the way to give your brain what it needs to be anywhere near its best.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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