Monday, October 26, 2009

This Blog's Good For Your Brain

October 26, 2009, 6:00 a.m.
For UI and Iowa's budget, see links from "TARP Lessons for Iowa's Budget Cutters," October 23, 2009.

Searching the Internet to Find It Even More So
(brought to you by*)

Remember "this is your brain on drugs"?

Well, this is your brain on the Internet:

And this is your brain while reading:

[Photo credit: "Internet Use 'Good for the Brain'; For middle-aged and older people at least, using the internet helps boost brain power, research suggests," BBC News, October 14, 2009; "Internet Brain [interview with Dr. Gary Small]," "Science in Action"/BBC World Service, October 23, 2009 (with link to streaming audio).]

So that's why I modify the heading on this blog entry ("Reading This Blog") with the sub-head ("Searching the Internet"). Most of those reading this blog have come to it directly. But the next largest group have come as a result of a Google (or other) search. And it is this searching and surfing that UCLA's Gary Small, Susan Y. Bookheimer and Teena D. Moody say is expanding the mental capacity of especially older Internet users. Rachel Champeau, "First-time Internet users find boost in brain function after just one week," UCLA Newsroom, October 19, 2009.

I would guess, however, that even those of you who are coming to the blog directly are relatively heavy Internet users -- one of the groups including in the UCLA research: "The UCLA team worked with 24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78. Prior to the study, half the participants used the Internet daily, while the other half had very little experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups."

Not incidentally, the results from their functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans indicate there is much greater brain activity (at least activity in more areas of the brain) from Internet searching than from reading -- as indicated in the photos at the top of this blog entry. Admittedly, the participants were between 55 and 78. But there's no intuitive reason to believe that the results would not be similar among young children -- the next group the researchers plan to study.

So those parents and teachers wishing students would read more may want to apply the old adage, attributed to numerous sources, that you should be careful what you wish for because you may get it. Perhaps their concern should be addressed to to those students who are spending excessive time with books and too little time with the Internet.

Of course, I'm only half serious. (1) At a minimum students need to be able to do both; and if I had to choose I'd pick reading skills over searching skills -- though I'd prefer not to have to make that choice. (2) Once the Internet search is over, and you find the relevant document, literacy is still a useful skill. (3) Not all interaction with computers involves Internet searching. At least this research did not address the neural consequences of consuming streaming audio or video, playing video games, text messaging, conversing over Skype, or looking at photos. (4) Internet searching can be a form of procrastination that has the opportunity cost for students of falling behind in homework or other obligations. (5) Worst case, there is such a thing as Internet addiction that really needs to be tended to.

Subject to those caveats, however, Dr. Small and his associates do seem to have come up with something we need to add to nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress reduction as elements of healthy living: Internet searching.

Gary Small, M.D. is the Director of the UCLA Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (2008) (Amazon offers the usual table of contents, excerpt, and index here); but see the Kirkus review on the Google Books site). The Gary Small and iBrain Web site has a link to streaming video of a CBS interview.

Here are more excerpts from the UCLA news release, Rachel Champeau, "First-time Internet users find boost in brain function after just one week," UCLA Newsroom, October 19, 2009:

You can teach an old dog new tricks, say UCLA scientists who found that middle-aged and older adults with little Internet experience were able to trigger key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning after just one week of surfing the Web.

The findings, presented Oct. 19 at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, suggest that Internet training can stimulate neural activation patterns and could potentially enhance brain function and cognition in older adults.

As the brain ages, a number of structural and functional changes occur, including atrophy, reductions in cell activity and increases in deposits of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which can impact cognitive function.

Research has shown that mental stimulation similar to that which occurs in individuals who frequently use the Internet may affect the efficiency of cognitive processing and alter the way the brain encodes new information.

"We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," said study author Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and the author of "iBrain," a book that describes the impact of new technology on the brain and behavior. . . .

The first scan of participants with little Internet experience demonstrated brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, which are located in the frontal, temporal, parietal, visual and posterior cingulate regions, researchers said. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the practice Internet searches at home, demonstrated activation of these same regions, as well as triggering of the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus — areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

Thus, after Internet training at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns very similar to those seen in the group of savvy Internet users — after just a brief period of time.

"The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA.

When performing an Internet search, the ability to hold important information in working memory and to extract the important points from competing graphics and words is essential, [Teena D.] Moody noted. . . .
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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