Some time ago, I wrote an article called “Are Our Brains Becoming Googlized?” It became my most read Search Engine Land post ever. Apparently I wasn’t the only one fascinated by the prospect of wholesale rewiring of our brains through exposure to technology.
UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior is one of the hotbeds of this brain research, with Drs Gary Small, Susan Bookheimer and Teena Moody doing a number of interesting fMRI studies looking at the impact of technology on our neural networks. One study in particular was fascinating to me, looking at how internet searching activated different parts of the brain. I had a chance to connect with Dr. Moody and ask her more about the study. In today’s column, I’ll share some excerpts from that interview.
The study was conducted with older participants and the goal was to see if the Internet could be used as a way to “exercise” the brain, slowing mental decline. One of the fascinating outcomes was not just which parts of the brain “fired” when searching, but the difference in the level of mental activity between practiced searchers (called the Internet savvy) and newbies (called the Internet naïve). This touched on a number of areas that overlapped with my thoughts and research findings in the past few years. The interview touched on a number of areas, including some of the methodological challenges of fMRI research. For those of you interested, the full transcript is on my blog.
In this column, we’ll explore possible reasons why more of the brain fires as we become more comfortable with searching. Dr. Moody and I explored some possible explanations for this. Danny Sullivan and I have been telling anyone who would listen that Googling is a habit. This study seems to provide more evidence for that view. But more than this, it’s a fascinating glimpse into how our brains evaluate what we see on the search page.
First, I’ll let Dr. Moody explain the original motivation behind the study, providing mental exercise for the elderly:
Dr. Moody: We have a situation where almost everyone has access to a computer, it can make this almost universal. Especially as we age, we’re not getting out there as much to walk around and some people don’t have the ability to go to senior centers and interact with other people, but that you could do something in your own home without requiring great mobility is very exciting. Also, there would be so much choice, there’s so much variety on the internet, it can be individually tailored to your personal preferences. So in this study I tried to pick topics that might be interesting to older adults – you know, walking for exercise, Tai Chi, health aspects of eating different types of food. I think that if it’s enjoyable for someone and if you don’t consider it to be a job to get out there and stimulate your brain, that people will do it more frequently. So that’s part of what’s exciting about it, is that it should be easily accessible to people once they know how to turn on the computer and activate the internet.
The main objective of the study was to see the difference in brain activity with two different groups between reading text and searching the web. Specifically, the team wanted to see which parts of the brain “lit up” when conducting the tasks. I asked what was the reasoning behind using reading as the comparative task.
Dr. Moody: Well, actually, both for the reading and for the internet and Google searching, we used a different baseline. We had a button-pressing baseline where white bars appeared on the screen and they just pressed the button when a white bar appeared for the location on the screen. And we compared the pattern of activity when they were reading and making… selecting different chapters or when they were selecting Google, from the Google search screen and reading off the internet to that pattern of activity. So our control was more of a low-level control baseline.
Then, in a higher-level analysis, we compared the pattern of activity while they were reading to the pattern of activity while they were doing the internet search. So both tasks had a lower-level baseline control.
The researchers also wanted to see the difference between the Internet Savvy and the Internet Naïve. Some results were as expected, and some came as a surprise:
Dr. Moody: Well, we found that the pattern of activity was almost identical, and that really frankly surprised me at first because I thought that the internet even for the naive participants would require additional areas, because when you’re searching the internet you are engaging in decision-making, you have to suppress extraneous information, so there’s inhibition required. So I was surprised to find that it looks like in both the internet task and the reading task the subjects are just engaging their language areas, their visual areas, there’s some sensory integration areas as well, but it looks like they’re reading in both cases. And not surprising at all about the areas recruited, because they’re language areas, memory areas, and visual attention areas.
But The researchers found something different when they were looking at the internet-savvy group.
Dr Moody: For the internet-savvy group, their reading areas were virtually identical to the reading areas that were activated for the internet-naive participants, but the very interesting part was the savvy group did recruit additional areas and these were frontal areas that had to do with decision-making, cingulate areas that have to do with conflict resolution. It’s not surprising, it’s what we expected, that these additional areas for decision-making would be required and higher-level cognitive function would be required, and that’s what we found in the internet-savvy group.
So, as you become more comfortable with the Internet, you actually use more of the brain. This is counter-intuitive. Generally as we learn to do something, the level of cognitive effort decreases rather than increases. Think about how hard you had to concentrate when you learned to drive, something that seems second nature to you now. So, in this study, it appeared there was something more happening upstairs as we learned our way around Google:
Gord: To explore that a little bit, we’re seeing that people are actually cognitively engaging with the results – they have to make decisions, they’re comparing them. What happens there? With the internet-naive, obviously they weren’t engaging with the content nearly at the same level, but the internet-savvy… Is there a certain level of fluency with search where you elevate it to a higher level and you’re using that input to make decisions?
Dr Moody: Yes, that is certainly one interpretation, and one interpretation that we have for the data – that it does require additional areas and as you practice it, you do become more fluent and more expert at it.
Now there are two different schools of thought on this. One is that when you first learn a task, you require greater activity and more attention, and that one could expect higher levels of activity if you were new at something. People with expertise can actually show decreases in their functional MRI pattern of activity. But what it seems here is that while engaging in internet searching, you are still very actively engaging these decision-making areas and it might be that the naive people are overwhelmed by the situation and are just treating it like a book – you’re still not trying to integrate the information, they’re reading it as though they were reading a book.
There’s one other interpretation as well, and that is that internet-naive people just have a different pattern of wiring in their brains from those who are internet-savvy – people who prefer using the internet and enjoy that mode of reading are wired differently from the internet-naive people. And we can’t distinguish that in this study, but that is also a possibility.
Two fascinating intepretations. One, as we become fluent with the search page layout and the actual act of searching, we let other parts of the brain kick in. We start interacting with the results. Two, Google is in fact rewiring our brains. The first is my Google Habit theory, and we’ll return to this. But the second possibility needs a little explanation. As I said in the first column on this, the phrase “rewiring our brains” sounds ominous indeed. The fact is, our brains are constantly being rewired. Rewiring is the basis of learning and memory. But there’s a more fundamental rewiring, building inherent circuitry that goes deeper than simple learning. And it was this that possibility that I asked Dr. Moody about.
Gord: You say they’re wired differently. Would that be the typical, neural “fire together, wire together” wiring that happens when we learn anything, or is this something more fundamental in the pruning that happens during the formative years?
Dr Moody: Well, certainly in development, you know, we have good evidence that things do wire differently depending upon environmental influences, and definitely there’s evidence now against the old theory that adult’s brains don’t change, but definitely after brain injury there’s been evidence of re-wiring or re-mapping brain regions to overcome deficits. We don’t know what’s happening here. This is a very preliminary study, but one interpretation could be that there was a re-wiring, as people practice on the internet that these areas become more active. But all we can really say is that the pattern of activity is different.
Whatever the cause for the rewiring, it’s significant that as we become more familiar with search, the brain seems to kick in at a different level. It’s almost as if the basics get done on autopilot so we can spend more time considering the results. This aligns with a past blog post I did and it was something I asked Dr. Moody about:
Gord: So one of the things I’ve suspected, when we’ve looked at behaviors in interacting with search, is as you become more used to using search, more comfortable with the interface, you don’t have to worry so much about navigating through the interface, that becomes more like a conditioned, habitual behavior. Which means your prefrontal cortex is free to kick in to do those cognitive assessments, to say, “Okay, here’s what Option A offers me versus Option B,” so it’s almost kicking it up to a higher level of processing. Does that seem to make sense? It’s like I said, Google has become a habit and at some point the basal ganglia takes over and runs it as a habit which frees up the prefrontal cortex to do more heavy lifting.
Dr. Moody: Well, our data are definitely consistent with that interpretation, and I think that that’s what part of our interest is, is how can we enrich our lives as we age, how can we improve our cognitive function or slow cognitive decline? And so yes, that’s an interpretation we would like to have because we would like to say, “Oh, we can do something to make our brains better as we age,” so that’s very exciting and interesting, and it is consistent, however we can’t conclude that. We don’t have any causality here at all.
So, is Google changing our brains? The answer appears to be yes, but at least at one level, that could be a good thing. Searching does exercise the brain in a similar way to other activities that require evaluation of information, decision making and rational thought. It’s easily accessible exercise that could keep our mental muscles limber as we age. The attractive thing about the internet is that it doesn’t seem like exercise if we’re finding information on something that interests us.
But there’s a more ominous side to this as well. What about the generation that’s growing up with Google? Increasingly, more and more neuroscientists and psychologists are expressing concern that the rapid fire stimulation of TV and video games could be turning our youth into socially challenged, multi tasking digital jolt addicts. The question journalist Nicholas Carr posed was “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
The Digital Native – Digital Immigrant theory has been espoused by many, including Dr. Moody’s co-researcher, Dr. Gary Small. In my next Just Behave column, Dr. Moody and I will chat a bit about the implications of Digitally Hardwired Brains.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.