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Smart Phone, Dumb Brain?

This fall, I’d like to offer my gratitude for international cellphone fees. Really. During a few recent days in Canada, my husband, Bill, and I agreed to avoid roaming and global-data charges by surviving most of the time without our smartphones. As you might expect from all the stories written about “disconnecting to connect,” this decision worked wonders for time spent with our two children: Less knee-jerk email and Facebook checking. More interactive games of “I Went to the Zoo and I Saw.” But it also forced a change you don’t hear so much about.

Bill and I noticed it most often over meals. One night at a pizza parlor in Niagara-on-the-Lake, for instance, we were explaining to the kids that, back in ancient times, we liked a TV show called ER. The next moment, I was racking my memory for the name of one of the characters. “You know the guy I mean,” I told Bill. “That tall doctor—sort of bald? Awful things kept happening to him? He finally died in, like, Season 8?”

“Hang on,” Bill said, putting down his slice and reaching for his pocket. Then he stopped, his eyes locked on mine. “Oh, right, we can’t.” We couldn’t Google up an answer on our phones. We had to use—oh, the shock of it—our brains.

And for our entire visit across the border, we kept right on having to use them, along with all five of our senses and advice from actual live humans. Often this seemed a pure nuisance. How were we supposed to manage without Yelp, Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor as we wandered in search of meals? (Our solution half the time—eating at the first restaurant we saw with a decent-sounding menu—yielded some sad results. See: Asparagus, bizarre lack of flavor. See also: The Puniest Churro Ever Sold for $3.) How could I, a woman who regularly gets lost in her hometown three years after moving there, possibly locate a bead store I saw on a flier without using Google Maps? I still don’t know.

Slowly but surely, though, our victories added up: The great gelato place we found by asking around. The tasty cheeseburger that, though overpriced, I was proud to have ordered, thanks to my dazzling powers of observation (i.e., noticing someone else’s burger as I passed a café). The magical butterfly garden we discovered via word-of-mouth and a brochure. One morning in Niagara Falls, I even dusted off my neural pathways and walked from our hotel to Horseshoe Falls and back without having to report to a police station as a missing person.

The bulk of our gloating, as you might guess, was reserved for feats of memory. “Greene!” I finally announced at the pizza place. “It was Dr. Greene!” Putting our heads together, Bill and I went on to recall that Dr. Greene’s first name (“Did it start with a ‘J’?” “A ‘W’?”) was Mark. After that there was no stopping us as we dredged up the names of Dr. Greene’s colleagues, then progressed boldly to characters from the even-more-ancient thirtysomething. Our children looked on in mild amusement.

At their ages, of course, remembering things is—as our 8-year-old would put it—easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. But as anyone knows who’s turned fortysomething, it’s doomed to become moany-groany-blood-from-a-stone-y. Or is it?

Encouraged by my mental triumphs in Canada, I’ve kept trying, since we returned home, to rely less on Google and GPS. I have, naturally, gotten lost a few times. A couple of sought-after facts remain lost, too. On the other hand, I feel as if the wheels in my head are turning a bit faster when it comes to, say, planning a route from my daughter’s writing class to the supermarket, or remembering the name of that French tennis player (“not Paul Tsongas—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga!”). Recent university studies suggest this progress isn’t just in my imagination.

Counting on computers to remember and navigate for us is changing how we use our brains, research shows—and not necessarily for the better. We know where to find information online, but increasingly don’t recall the info itself. We adopt a passive “stimulus response” strategy while following GPS, rather than a “spatial” one that involves more activity and gray matter in the hippocampus. Plenty of people worry all this could contribute to dementia and Alzheimer’s. And they suspect the converse: that depending more on our own, inborn search engines and global positioning systems might help strengthen our noodles.

Which is all the encouragement I need to continue my little experiment in old-school brain use—though I won’t take it too far. Without Google, after all, I wouldn’t know about those scientific studies. And without GPS, I might still be finding my way home from Canada.

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