Will downloading make you smart and happy?

by Dr. Steve Wright

For some time now, people have been talking about – at some point in the future – downloading information directly to your brain. (Check out the interesting twists on this idea by scientist/inventor Ray Kurzweil and science fiction writer John C. Wright.) Apparently a crude form in the opposite direction is already possible: controlling a computer with your thoughts (See the Berlin Brain-Computer Interface). This means you could control devices that can be controlled by computers, including a computer somewhere on the internet (which means the device could be attached to your body, or halfway around the world).

Related: video of a monkey controlling a robotic arm.

Coming back to the first issue (downloading information), to my knowledge we have to be content for now to download the old-fashioned way. But if you think about it, this just keeps getting better, sometimes by leaps and bounds. Google’s better search algorithm was an obvious advance. Google made it even easier than previous search engines to find exactly what you want, even some very obscure bit of information. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before in history. In that sense we’re smarter than we’ve ever been. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare this to intelligence, but you could say everyone who knows how to search on the Internet has a sort of genius-level knowledge base. I thought about calling this your “Google Quotient,” but I found out the phrase was already being used to mean something else. (I googled it!)

As more complete, better-quality, and more specialized information gets put on the Internet, that knowledge base available to you just keeps improving.

I sometimes read a blog written by Scott Adams, who does the Dilbert cartoon. He’s a smart guy, and often raises interesting issues. A few days ago he mentioned again that he’d been suffering from a mysterious voice problem that baffled his doctors.

I woke up one day thinking my voice problem might be related in some way to my hand problem – a writer’s cramp called focal dystonia. So I Googled “voice dystonia” and up popped a link to a video of a person speaking with exactly the same speech defect I had at the time, something called Spasmodic Dysphonia.

So he was able to use Google to self-diagnose a rare condition, that diagnosis later confirmed by doctors. He tried recommended treatments and therapies, with limited success. Then Google came to the rescue again:

About a year ago I started using Google Alerts to tell me whenever someone mentioned Dilbert, me, or anything about Spasmodic Dysphonia on the Internet. About six months ago I got an alert with a link to an obscure medical publication with a report about an even more obscure surgical procedure for fixing spasmodic dysphonia. I took that information to my doctor, who referred me to an expert at Stanford University, who referred me to an expert surgeon at UCLA. Long story short, the operation I read about wasn’t as promising as the article suggested, but the final surgeon in my travels had his own version of surgery that had a good track record. I tried it, and now my voice is normal. I never would have found that path without Google Alerts.

One way to look at the success of science is that it’s the story of more and more pieces of reliable information being built up so that when you need an answer to a particular problem, it exists. With the development of the Internet, that information is more accessible, which should help more and more problems be solved. Will this make you smarter and happier? Well, if being smart is at least partly the ability to solve problems, the answer is yes, it would help you be smarter. Whether this would make you happier is a little more complicated. Some changes in our lives can make us lastingly happier, but many changes in life situation – even big ones – are easy to get used to. We adapt. New situations that are good, or bad, become normal after awhile. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” You’re happy with some new thing you got. But then you get used to it. It becomes the new normal situation for you. And your happiness returns to your normal level.

A method for countering this erosion of your happiness is to renew the positive benefit the good thing provides by actively appreciating it. This goes along with the theme of gratitude I started writing about around Thanksgiving. As you know if you read those articles (Gratitude Visit) (Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness), gratitude can be a powerful support for increased happiness that lasts.

So my thought for the day is that I’m grateful for the development of science and technology (and its public accessibility) that solves problems and creates new possibilities.

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on December 10th, 2008

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