The Brain: Improved by the Internet?

In October 2008, Science Daily published an article entitled "Searching The Internet Increases Brain Function" which summarizes a high-profile and unique study. Dr. Gary Small of the University of California, Los Angeles performed the research at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He concluded, "emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," specifically by promoting complex brain activity through online searches. When scientists juxtaposed brain action during reading with that of online browsing, the former was stifled in comparison, evident in the picture above. This research is preliminary, though, and should not yet be generalized across older adults because they grew up solely reading books and were introduced to the internet with an established foundation of reading skills. By contrast, Generation Y has always lived with the pairing of traditional books and the internet, so it is difficult to deem whether or not the study's results would also be true of individuals with a different educational background. With that in mind, the neuroscience research is promising, but may be problematic if there is a resulting emphasis on cyberspace over conventional reading.

In examining the procedures of this study, a skeptic may question research practices before accepting the results as true. Twenty-four volunteers ages 55 to 76 participated, half of whom had previous experience exploring the internet. Twelve participants per group does not seem sufficient to make a conclusion about the entire population of adults within this age range based on the laws of sampling in statistics. However, one must also consider that because this research is cutting-edge, it is looking for trends to study more in-depth in the future. The twelve individuals who had previous experience with searching the internet "registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning," the article recounted. But this is not surprising, according to Dr. Liz Zelinski, professor of psychology and gerontology at the University of Southern California. Zelinski offers the following analogy: "If you wanted to study how hard people can exercise, and you take people that already exercise and people that don't exercise, aren't they going to be different to start out?" It appears the human brain is trained to engage more deeply in previously encountered tasks; just as a muscle grows bigger once it has experienced weight-lifting, the brain establishes more connections within itself after having repeated a specific activity, like searching on the internet.

This study emphasizes that the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan revealed nearly two-and-a-half times more connections between tiny brain units (called voxels) while perusing cyberspace in adults with internet search experience as compared to those without. A psychology student blogger seems to accept this study and deduces, if "older adults show increased activation after using the internet for about 10 years, then imagine the activation the young adults of today will show when they are 55 (after using the internet for over 40 years)." While this research may have merit, thinking of this nature is alarming. As people begin to believe that their brains will benefit more from using the internet than from reading, they are likely to spend less time doing the latter. Evidence of negative consequences already exists. Dr. Karen Shue explains that as "we are changing our info-intake habits and info-use habits, we are indeed re-wiring our brains," and because people usually skim online, traditional reading attention-spans suffer. Stated concisely, "use it or lose it, applies to the brain's networking world." As an example, in an Atlantic Monthly article entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" writer Nicholas Carr describes his own experiences with the effects of frequent internet use on his reading capabilities. He says something is "tinkering" with his brain; he was once able to immerse himself in a lengthy book. Now though, restlessness causes him to struggle because he has become accustomed to excessive online stimulation. The average web-surfer spends less than sixty seconds on one site before moving to the next, so it is not surprising that Carr and many others feel uneasy while trying to comprehend a novel.

The avoidance of traditional reading due to a waning enjoyment involves threatening costs to the qualities that make us human. As the brain's make-up changes, it seems as if people are becoming wired to mimic the perpetrator--the computer (see right). Because of recent technology, participants under age thirty remembered fewer personal details than those ages fifty and above, according to a poll of 3,000 individuals by Ian Robertson. Computers and cellular devices enable external storage, and Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine observes that "without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us." For example, one-third of youngsters were not able to remember their own telephone number. Accordingly, people do not feel pressure to retain other knowledge because the internet acts as an infinite pool, quickly accessible using a search engine such as Google. Relating this back to traditional reading, what is the purpose of immersion in a Shakespeare classic when a plot summary can appear online in seconds? This mentality may cause individuals to deprive themselves of many irreplaceable qualities of these texts: in-depth plots and subplots, exposure to an expansive vocabulary, a getaway to a fictional land, and most importantly, room for the imagination to fill any voids. Carr recognizes that his mind now mirrors the net by receiving information "in a swiftly moving stream of particles." He used to be "a scuba diver in the sea of words," but he now "zip[s] along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." With all of this considered, reading can slow the pace of a hectic life, and it is essential that humans do not completely begin to avoid this art and its grounding qualities. Although the internet may have mental benefits and is a necessary tool for mass communication and information sharing, it must be balanced with traditional reading to avoid a society of human computers.

1 comment:

Michael Ecker said...

It is difficult, at most optimistic, to tell what the long term effects of living in a digital age will be, and whether these findings indicate brain activity that is “good” or simply “different.” I think that the findings must be further studied to find out what we can do to keep the next generations from relying wholly on the internet. I am of the unique age group who came into my own at the same time that the internet was doing the same thing. In essence, I grew up as the internet was growing up. Kids who are being born today are being thrown into a world of information that may be too big for them to handle. Do you think that this will affect these children in a positive or negative way? I know that in my very life I have noticed a sort of “google syndrome” outlined by Clive Thompson. Truthfully the only phone numbers I still know by heart are those of my 7th-8th grade friends. Is this a travesty? Or am I freeing up that brain concentration for new things? Which is more important, knowing answers or knowing how to find answers?

This post addresses in a scientific way, and almost inadvertently, a very serious Issue regarding how technology changes the social interactions of humankind. We change, our society evolves, and at our very core, we are different people based on technological advances throughout history. I’m sure that as the television, radio, automobiles, even electricity itself was emerging there were similar societal issues regarding generational responses. Though, I can’t imagine that any affect people at the cerebral level of the internet. It is an important undertaking to learn the effects of internet, as the more we learn, the more we can shape our children’s education and upbringing in the developmentally positive way. My only fear is that with studies like these we may be opening Pandora’s Box to find a never-ending field of study.

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