Metacognition and the Mind

Thinking about thinking—and how we come to know what we know

Wisdom: Ask Siri? Or Ask Grandma?

Is web-based wisdom taking over how and where we access and acquire knowledge?

Today, we turn to the internet for everything, with Wikipedia being our web-based wisdom, and Google providing the search capabilities that often surpasses our failing memory.  In fact, recent research has shown what is known as the “Google Effect”; namely, we are better at knowing WHERE to finding information, as opposed to being able to recall the actual information.  In fact, we might readily forget information that we know we can access on the web.  This raises many important questions, one of which is to what degree can we rely on web-based wisdom, perhaps at the expense of our own “human” knowledge and memory?   

Are we turning to the internet, without making social contact with family that can provide more informative and valuable insight?  What we might forget is that often valuable insight is best gotten from our elders: our grandparents, our parents or other people who have lived and developed unique knowledge-bases, and ones that are more easily accessible than any Smartphone.  Information sharing is essential.  For example, imaging you are need to know “ How do I remove something that might be a wasp nest?”.  You could check the internet, or your could ask someone who might have done it before – often an older adult has relevant life-experience or insight, and is more than happy to share it.  In addition, turning to our elders also allows for rich family history that may not be documented elsewhere, and can lead to bonding—bonding beyond being tied to your iPhone.  Getting to know an older relative can be an enriching experience, and provides escape from certain negative stereotypes regarding aging: as Brad Pitt said: “With age comes wisdom…"

Coupling the Internet with grandparents’ wisdom, a creative new website called “oldSchooled” collects postings (and pictures) of older adults/grandparents words of wisdom.  The site wants to develop a collection of insightful wisdom to act as both a repository and a place for children who don’t have grandparents to find words or wisdom.  It is like a Wikipedia for older adults’ knowledge, and one that families could also use to build a virtual library of family history and knowledge.  This web-based approach to generating, documenting and passing along wisdom is based on the history of wisdom.  Traditionally, wisdom has been passed through conversations and stories from one generation to the next, often based on a social connection between individuals. In times of war, conflict, or merely self-doubt, elders were sought out for their sagacity and advice.  

With the recent progression of technology, younger people rely on the Internet for answers, and while children and younger adults may still respect and love their grandparents, they may sometimes forget that older adults have an entire lifetime’s worth of experience and knowledge.  Today, I wonder if Siri or Google have replaced our need to rely on older adults’ wisdom and knowledge.  However, our brains change not just by the accumulation of information we can get from the internet, but also the social bonds we make, and our most precious (and growing) natural resource today may be the older wiser adult. 

Alan Castel, Ph.D., is an associate professor of cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and studies memory, metacognition and aging.

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