"Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading--but only in those with prior Internet experience. The study results are encouraging that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults. Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."
Woo Hoo! Dr. Small's study, which is due to be published in the upcoming issue of The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry is the best news I've heard all week! In the July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr's essay asked, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" For so many of us Internet addicts, the reading of books, magazines and "hard copy" newspapers has taken a backseat. And we can hardly keep up--there is too much to read--and too much to learn on the Net. Carr makes the assumption that "book reading" beats Web Surfing hands-down. I'm so happy to learn that he may be wrong!
Dr. Gary Small of UCLA looked at the brains of 24 volunteers, aged 55-76, while they searched the Internet, and while they read books. Only half of the group were experienced Internet searchers.
He measured their brain activity while reading and Web surfing using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The fMRI recorded both brain-circuitry changes and the level of cerebral blood flow during both of these activities.
Both groups showed significant brain activity while reading, which stimulated the parts of the brain responsible for language, reading, memory and visual abilities. See the scan on the left.
But the exiting news is what happened when the 2 groups searched the Web. Only the Web-savvy searchers registered a dramatic surge in the decision-making and complex-reasoning parts of the brain. And their brain activity was over twice as large as the inexperienced groups'. See the scan on the right.
The brain activity is measured by the fMRI with a unit called a VOXEL. The savvy-searchers hit 21,782 voxels while they web surfed, compared to only 8,646 voxels for the newby-searchers. It's all about VOXELS when it comes to the brain!
I was surprised to learn that the decision-making & complex-reasoning parts of the brain were only activated during Internet searching, not while reading. Both Nicholas Carr and I had wrongly assumed that reading ruled in the brain-building world. I am not going to feel guilty about ignoring books over my laptop ever again! And you shouldn't either. Maybe.
Dr. Small hypothesizes that the decision-making and complex-reasoning parts of the brain weren't engaged in the Internet-newbies because they hadn't yet grasped the strategies needed to maneuver around the web.
More of the brain is engaged while web surfing, as compared to reading, because the wealth of choices presented requires us to make decisions about what we want to click on, and what's going to be useful info. Dr. Small says this activity is engaging important cognitive circuits in our brain.
The good news is, according to Small, "A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older." Thank goodness!
Randy Bucker, a Harvard neuroscientist has a different take on the study. He wonders if "completely novel activities influence brain activity or if it's the activity of Web searching itself that causes a leap in brain bustle." If his theory were right, wouldn't the inexperienced searchers have had the greater increase in their fMRIs, rather than the savvy-searchers?
In any event, it's use it or lose it. As we age our brains inevitably shrink, the cell activity is reduced, and our performance diminishes. Isn't it fantastic to think that something like searching the Internet may actually prevent the inevitable from happening? I certainly hope so.
For anyone who is interested, Dr. Small just co-published a new book, called iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, (HarperCollins 2008) "that explores how the the older generation can keep up with the younger generation in an increasingly technological world."