How You Can Use Google as a Brain Tool

How You Can Use Google as a Brain Tool

By: Matt Ehlers

 This issue introduces readers to how the brain uses the body and world as tools of cognition. And, those who are curious about them can find out even more about them online by using search engines. For example, looking up “cognition body world” on Google gives 297 million results. Likewise, searching for “brain-based learning” returns 940 million different ones. Other searches, such as “embodied cognition” and “how movement affects the brain,” present users anywhere from tens to hundreds of millions of results.

" do we choose between results … ?"
Matt Ehlers
TT Author

However, the sheer number of these begs the question: Which ones are actually useful for learning more about the brain and learning? To put it another way, how do we choose between websites that could help us be better teachers, versus ones that are useless or even harmful?

To answer that, we first need to narrow down the number of search engine results, to keep from having to go through so many. And, there are several different ways to do this.

One is to use a filter that narrows down and refines your search. Though there are quite a few, one I’ve found especially useful is the site: operator. To use it, write “site:” (without the quotation marks) and put the desired web address (i.e. URL) immediately after it. This tells the search engine to only look for results from that particular website, rather than others. As an example, if you were looking for memory research and only wanted it from Live Science (an online science news source), you’d put “” at the end of your query—and your results would only come from there.

If you want to limit your search to a specific kind of website (such as ones with .com, .org, or .edu in them), put that immediately after the “site:” operator. For example, if you only wanted information from educational institutions (that is, ones with either a .edu or a .ac in their URLs), you would follow your query with “” or “”, and it would only return results from those types of organizations.

Finally, if you do not want results from certain websites or types of them, put a minus sign (-) immediately in front of the site: operator. So, for instance, if you don’t want results from .com websites, put “” at the end of your search query and the search engine will not show you any. (Note: Remove the quotation marks if you use this operator or any of the examples given.)

Another technique I’ve found useful is knowing the difference between general search engines and academic ones. General ones, like Google or Bing, return results from all websites they’ve found, while academic scholarly ones (such as Google Scholar, BASE, CORE, and, among others) give studies and other research as results.

As an aside, some papers from scholarly search engines can be read in full for free, while others are locked up behind paywalls (though you should still be able to read their abstracts). That said, if you want to read the whole thing but can’t access it without paying, you can do a few things, including the following: 1) Go to your local library and request it via Interlibrary Loan; 2) download a browser extension / plug-in that enables you to find free, full-length papers online that can be read without breaking any laws (such as the ones listed at these websites); or 3) write to one of the paper’s authors and politely ask for a copy.

Another way you can get around paywalls is to do a web search for the paper’s title, with quotation marks around it (e.g. “On the Origin of Species”) to tell the search engine to search for that exact title. That way, you can see if there’s a free online copy that you can legally read, such as from sites like ResearchGate or Semantic Scholar.

A third internet research tactic I’ve found useful is about how to deal with links that no longer work. This problem, which involves either the page being gone or its content being a lot different from what it was before, is quite common. However, there are solutions to it, one of which can be used on any device and in any browser: The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Using it requires going to to that online archive at (an image of it is below), typing or pasting the non-functioning URL into the box next to the Wayback Machine, and pressing enter. If it has saved that website in the past, you will see a timeline indicating that, along with when. For more information, see the instructions that the Internet Archive provides.

Using these tips, it should be easier for you to narrow down your results, so as to increase the odds that you’ll get the brain tool information you want. After that, though, comes the next step: Evaluating your results, to make sure that they are both credible and useful to you.

There are different ways of doing this, six of which are below.

The first is to look at the March 2021 Think Tank issue, since it went over some things to bear in mind when reading research. Its articles went over the following themes:

By reviewing it, you can better know things to remember when evaluating search engine results.

Another would be to practice click restraint. This involves reading at least the entire first page of search results (rather than immediately clicking on one of the top ones), by looking at their URLs, their titles, and brief descriptions for each. Though you won’t find out much about the different web pages listed by doing this, it will quickly let you see which ones definitely do not have what you are looking for.

A third method is lateral reading. This technique entails going to a promising result and, before reading, watching, or listening to anything there, finding out all about it, such as who runs the organization that hosts it and what others say about it. This investigation can be done by looking at different reference websites (such as Wikipedia or Media Bias / Fact Check), and also by visiting other credible sources. By doing this, you can learn about its reputation and agenda, which can help you decide whether to trust whatever content is there, or whether you would be better off skipping it. In short, using this method could help you avoid wasting time on content that’s biased or inaccurate.

A fourth tool is the CRAAP Test, which involves looking at the website’s content and evaluating it based on five different criteria:

    • Currency, or when it was published, posted, or last updated;
    • Relevance, or how relevant it is to the topic you’re researching;
    • Authority, or the website’s, author’s, or creator’s credentials;
    • Accuracy, which includes the kinds of sources it cites, whether its claims are supported by evidence, and the like; and
    • Purpose, or what the point of that site, video, or article is.

By using it, you can see how old the content is, whether or not it is applicable to whatever you’re learning about, whether whoever made it is competent to share their views on it, whether its information is legitimate, and what its point is (that is, to inform, to persuade, or to entertain).

Two final ways you can use to evaluate web results are based on what Google search engineer Dan Russell wrote about news stories. First, if you have a strong emotional reaction to whatever you just read, watched, or listened to, you’ve been manipulated, so be on your guard if that happens. And, second, if you find a good site with brain tools, you should save it, in case you need to come back at a later date.

In short, there are several ways you can both narrow down and assess search engine results. And, though I’ve gone over them individually, it’s been my experience that using several of them during the same search gives me the best odds of finding useful information that I can trust.

"Search engines are brain tools."
Matt Ehlers
TT Author

Having gone over some ways you can use search engines, it is also important to take a step back and understand one other point about them that Think Tank editor-in-chief Curtis Kelly has made: Search engines are brain tools. As Tim Murphey explained, the brain uses real world objects both as part of its thinking process and as extensions for it. Though Google, Bing, and other such online tools are not tangible, the mind uses them in the same way he described, namely as an extension of itself and also to help it think and remember.

Thus, by using them, you can help your brain do more. And, by knowing better how to get what you want, which I’ve covered in this piece, you can get that much more benefit out of them.

Matt Ehlers regularly reads about web search and website evaluation, so he can use them to learn more about education, English language teaching, and cognitive psychology. He also despises misinformation, and hopes to teach others (including ELLs) how to find useful information online.

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