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We should encourage browsing

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 06 April 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d2182

Does the internet limit or extend the human mind? - Probably both


We read with interest Jerome Kassirer's article on the way readily
accessible information from the internet might affect medical practice.[1]
Essentially his point was that homing in directly on the required
information reduces the chances of serendipitous intellectual discoveries,
which may subsequently turn out to be very useful. Personally we found the
article rather unconvincing, albeit at a purely anecdotal level, since we
frequently find ourselves browsing on the internet.

Two recent articles contribute further to this debate - firstly, an
article in Scientific American compared the human brain with those of
other mammals and found that by having thinner neurons we are able to pack
more cells into a given volume of brain.[2] However, the paper argued that
we are approaching the theoretical limit to further reductions in cell
diameter and hence the theoretical limit on human memory. More recently
still an article in Science produced empirical evidence from four studies,
showing that information retrieved by internet searches was less likely to
be retrieved in the memory than information retrieved by more traditional
means.[3] So perhaps Prof. Kassirer is right after all, albeit for the
wrong reason. However, these articles also showed that the mind did tend
to remember where the information was stored, meaning that it could be
retrieved more easily on subsequent occasions.

Given the physical limits on the memory capacity of our brains it
seems that the internet is truly becoming a working extension of the human
mind. Perhaps rather than going back to the old-fashioned browsing of
paper articles, we should work out how best to make cyberspace an
extension of our limited mind-space.


[1] Kassirer JP. We should encourage browsing. BMJ 2011;342:d2182.

[2] Fox D. The limits of intelligence. Sci Am 2011;305(1):36-43.

[3] Sparrow B, Liu J, Wegner DM. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive
Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science

Competing interests: No competing interests

11 August 2011
Richard J Lilford
Professor of Clinical Epidemiology
Peter J. Chilton
University of Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK