Google unveiled a new way to display its search results this morning, called Instant Search. Instant brings search results to your browser, as you type. Letter by letter - it's amazing. The feature will be rolled out to all users over the coming hours and days but is available to be tested here.

It's fast. It's satisfying. But if respected critics like Nicholas Carr have raised the alarm that Google's legacy search product might make us stupid - what might Google Instant do to our brains and thinking? There are at least two ways to look at the question.

Google Instant as a Mental Limit

"The normative influence of Google just got a lot stronger," Kevin Marks, a British Telecom technologist, former Googler and internet intelectual, said today on Twitter.

In other words, Google's influence over what we consider the norm, or what we take for granted as an assumption, regarding any particular topic, will become stronger now that we're instantly given suggested search queries and answers to questions we haven't even finished asking yet.

When the Great Google in the Sky interrupts you asking it a question and says (effectively) "don't even bother finishing, we know what you're going to ask and here's the answer" - how many of us might just concede to ask what Google expects we were going to?

Google Instant as a proscriptive and limiting influence over the boundaries of our consideration; that's something to think about.

Google Instant as Brain Stimulation

Google Instant Search may be a recipe for brain health; with its pleasing combination of rapid results, sneak peeks into potentially related topics as we begin to explore and a responsive interface that encourages more sophistication in our interaction with search engines than the classic 2-word grunt-queries typically deliver.
I'm not sure yet, but I don't think I experience Google Instant as a limitation to my brain's power to consider infinite possibilities. I really like it, so far. Perhaps that's just the comfort of clear, controlled and limited choices, though.

Think of this, however. Google executives said in a press Q&A session about Instant today that users participating in tests of the service quite often saw links they were interested in at the bottom of the page and then extended their search queries with text that would bring those results up to the top of the page.

Google Instant Search feels to me like a call-and-response exchange with the Google robots. "If I type this in, what are you going to say?" I ask. "Ok, I see that now, but what if I type this in" is the logical next step.

My theory: by making search a more interactive, call & response activity, Instant Search could stimulate mental activity, as opposed to Google making us stupid.

"That's very true," says Dr. Ellen Weber, President of the MITA (Multiple Intelligences Teaching Approach) International Brain Based Center in New York, "in that the brain holds multiple intelligences - and to engage more and diverse types of thinking is better than to engage less and with the same. Every time you do a thing the same way - you grow new neuron pathways for that same way of doing things. Do things differently, and engage your curiosity, and you physically rewire your brain."

Weber has written about how to use social media effectively to support healthy brain development.

The essential core of the idea is a timeless one, before Instant Search, before computers even: interact with new and different people and perspectives in order to expand your horizons and keep your brain functioning sharply.

Is that what Google Instant offers? I think it may; with its pleasing combination of rapid results, sneak peeks into potentially related topics as we begin to explore, and a responsive interface that encourages more sophistication in our interaction with search engines than the classic 2-word grunt-queries typically deliver. I'm not sure yet, but that's my theory.

What do you think? Is Instant Search a potential boon or bane for the health of our brains?