As somebody interested in how the mind works, I read with interest the results of a recent study at UCLA that used the sexiest research tool around today, fMRI scanning. fMRI allows researchers to see which parts of the brain are active when participants are exposed to different stimuli. And for the first time I’m aware of, this was used to track brain activity while people engaged in various online tasks, including searching.
First of all, the “official” story of the study. Then I’ll launch off into my own personal speculation, as the study raises some mind altering implications, and I use that term “mind altering” in it’s literal sense.
The internet: Keeping aging brains limber
The objective of the study was to see if regular internet usage was more effective than other intellectually stimulating tasks in keep the brain limber in aging test subjects. Gary Small, a professor the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, along with Teena D. Moody and Susan Y. Bookheimer, will be publishing the study in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology. By the way, Small also has a book out which has just been added to my reading list: iBrain, Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (after reading the book, I might have to rethink the opinion which follows).
In a nutshell, the findings were that “emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle aged and older adults,” and that “internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.” This is a long way of saying that being online helps keep those little gray cells busy. The level of brain activity was compared to that of reading a book. With internet usage, a significantly bigger piece of neural real estate lit up on the fMRI indicating that more parts of the brain were engaged.
I was particularly interested in the comments on Internet searching, as it seems to line up with my beliefs on the subject. Recently I tried to walk through the cortical and subcortical interplay that happens when we do a search. I have also mused that online activity might be remapping our cortical networks. It appears that this might be the case.
There was one particularly interesting finding in the study. Not all brains fired up at the same level of activity. In those without previous Internet experience, the variance between the level of activity reading and that while online searching wasn’t significantly different, but in those with prior experience, activity was found in the frontal, temporal and cingulated areas of the brain, areas associated with complex reasoning. The brain in these participants was getting a much more thorough workout.
The purpose of the study was to measure the effectiveness of online activity in slowing geriatric cognitive loss. But for me, the more interesting implications come in understanding that the brain of Internet users may be remapping itself.
Or is Google making us stupid?
Earlier this summer, the Atlantic’s technology writer, Nicholas Carr, wrote an article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing.”
Now, the way Carr puts it, it sounds pretty ominous. Remapping neural circuitry? Reprogramming the memory! One gets the picture of a gremlin armed with wire cutters and a chain saw, having their way with our cortex. But the fact is, “remapping” and “reprogramming” happens every day. If it didn’t, you’d never remember your phone number or where you lived. The forging of new neural connections and the pruning of old ones are the basic functions of our brains. It’s how our brain works.
But the UCLA findings might indicate something more permanent, something related to the recent discovery that neuroplasticity, once thought to only be present in the very young, is now known to be a property of our brains throughout our lives. By the way, Small’s other work does show a significant divide between the online skills of the young (Digital Natives) and older generations (Digital Immigrants).
First of all, let’s understand how we learn. Learning involves creating new neuronal firing paths. Basically, as we learn we increase the potential of neurons responsible for storing the new knowledge to fire together. Donald Hebbs called it “fire together, wire together”. Each time the network of neurons fires, the potential to fire again is increased. That’s why things get easier, the more we do them.
In my cognitive walk through of searching explanation, I hypothesized about how the act of searching might pull concepts from various storage modules in the brain (mental images, memories, brand associations, concepts, experiences, sounds, etc) and bring them into the prefrontal cortex, enabling the synthesis required to make a click decision. I’ve said a number of times before that the act of searching is a complex cognitive ballet. Looking at the fMRI image, it appears I was right.
But here’s the thing. In somebody with little or no previous experience with the Internet, the neuronal paths required to pull the information forward might not have been forged. No neurons have been “wired together”. This could explain the discrepancy in the UCLA study between Internet experts and neophytes.
There’s nothing particularly amazing about this. This is simple learning. It is interesting to see how online activity engages multiple parts of the brain, but there’s nothing earth shaking here. But here is what is interesting, and I think it might go to what Nicholas Carr is alluding too.
Our neural plasticity
Studies have shown that our brain has amazing plasticity. We can literally remap entire sections of our cortex to take on new functions. In his book, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, Jeffrey Schwartz recounts how stroke patients have been able remap other parts of the brain to take over motor skills and sense from the striken part of the brain. Blind people use their visual cortex to enhance the sense of touch needed to read Braille. This is not just a synaptic strengthening typical in learning. This is wholesale remapping of the brain, creating enduring pathways for recurring functionality.
So, if the brain has this ability to remap new functions into low traffic areas of our cortex, are we in fact remapping our brains to be more adept in navigating online spaces? Carr contends that our attention spans are getting shorter and he worries that soon we’ll be unable to make our way through a book or even a moderately long magazine article. Or, if we take the alternate point of view that seems to emerge in the UCLA study, is regular use of Google keeping our mind more limber, regularly exercising the synaptic connections between cortical areas? The fact is, the flexibility of our cortex evolved to enable humans to better adapt to dynamic environments. As our world got more complex, we needed to move beyond the programmed responses of the limbic system to something that gave us a little more latitude to respond appropriately to situations. Yes, if we use the Internet frequently, our minds will accommodate by building skills in this area. But this doesn’t imply that we’re getting the virtual version of a frontal lobotomy or, conversely, supercharging our intellect. It just means that we’re using our inherent hardware for new purposes so that we can better keep up with our world. It’s the same flexibility we all come born with, and it’s what makes humans rather remarkable.
Google makes access to information easier and I myself have wondered what this will do to our learning habits. But the fact is that the information revolution is just the latest in numerous changes in how we perceive and cognitize the world around us. Our cortical remapping allows us to adapt to these changes and utilize them effectively. It may not be a question of smart or stupid. It might just be a different way of doing things.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.