Are We Losing Our Ability to Think?

We live in amazing times. Smartphones store tens of thousands of contacts, GPS devices lead us to a destination with pinpoint accuracy, and apps track our calories and fitness level in a way that nobody could have imagined only a decade ago. What’s more, the Internet of things promises to revolutionize life in the years ahead.

You would think that offloading and tracking all that data—rather than handling tasks manually—would allow us to use our brains more creatively, efficiently and effectively. But the verdict is still out on that. In fact, there’s evidence that IQ levels in the Western World are on the decline.

Actually, that situation isn’t all that surprising. There’s an inherent problem with smart devices: They often make us dumber. These days, hardly anyone can recall a phone number or an address. People don’t know how to use maps, and in the process of following their GPS, they sometimes drive into a lake or sandpit! And all the fitness devices and their feedback aren’t making much of a dent in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Here’s some worse news: In an era in which there’s unsurpassed information at our fingertips— including thousands of online libraries full of books and reference materials on almost every imaginable subject—there’s more ignorance than ever. A glance at the Web serves up a mind-bending and horrifying array of lies, half-truths, hoaxes, urban legends, conspiracy theories and just plain nuttiness. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

Just as we’ve steadily eliminated many daily physical activities—hammering and sawing things, walking to the store and stirring pots of soup on the stove—and watched our health deteriorate in the process, we’re now curtailing our mental exercise, and, in the process, witnessing a cognitive decline that goes way beyond an IQ test.

Previous generations knew basic life hacks that now wind up as “aha” posts on Facebook. Today, our first impulse is to buy expensive and increasingly high-tech products that promise to solve our problems. In reality, they contribute to more practical dumbness and further disassociation from the physical world.

The problem is that human brains naturally gravitate toward doing things in the simplest and most pleasing way possible. Psychologist and author Douglas Lisle refers to this as the “Pleasure Trap.”

We need to find ways to better engage our brains and bodies. Otherwise, as Lisle points out, we may short-circuit our long-term welfare. We may wind up misleading ourselves into thinking that we’re doing a really good thing, when, ultimately, we’re engineering our demise.