Can you use the Internet to better your brain? Yes, say researchers at University of California at Los Angeles who conducted a study called “Your Brain on Google.” The research team, led by Gary Small, MD, of UCLAâs Center on Aging, explored whether searching the Internet stimulates areas of the brain that control decision making, complex reasoning and vision. It does indeed, but only for those who use Google or other search engines in a certain way.
The study included 24 people aged 55 to 76. Half the subjects (the “Net NaÃ¯ve” group) had little or no experience in searching the Internet, while the other half (the “Net Savvy” group) were skilled computer users who regularly use the Internet. This age group was chosen because researchers postulated that age-related brain changes are associated with declines in cognitive abilities, such as processing speed and working memory, and that routine computer use might have an impact — negative or positive. Both groups were asked to perform two tasks — first, to read text on a computer screen, and second to use Google to search the Web. The reading material and research topics were interesting and similar in content (for instance, the benefits of drinking coffee, planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, how to choose a car, etc.).
Meanwhile, as the subjects worked on their computers, researchers scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device to ascertain which parts were active. During the text-reading phase, these fMRI scans revealed similar activity for both groups in the regions that control language, reading, memory and vision. But there were very dissimilar results when the two groups performed Web searches. When the Net NaÃ¯ve group searched the Internet, their brain activity was similar to what they had experienced while reading… in contrast, the Net Savvy group produced activity in areas of the brain that control decision making and complex reasoning. Previous studies have shown that this type of brain activity is important for everyday cognitive tasks.
This result shows that the Internet is itself “brain stimulation,” said Dr. Small. He explained that this may be especially helpful as people age because, compared with reading, Web searches require many more decisions to be made. For instance, searchers must decide which information to pursue and which to ignore. When I asked Dr. Small why the Net NaÃ¯ve group showed less brain stimulation than the Net Savvy group, he said it may be that they lacked direction due to their lack of experience with the Internet. When this group was given some training for later experiences, their brains showed similar patterns of activity to those who were adept at Internet use, he told me.
So, if youâve been feeling guilty about how much time you spend online — donât. And if you havenât been very involved with using your computer to search topics of interest, give it a try — itâs great exercise.
Gary Small, MD, director of the Memory and Aging Center at the Jane & Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, University of California, Los Angeles. He is also coauthor of many books, including iBrain (Collins Living).