I have spent a good part of my career developing technologies to examine and understand the brain. Using PET and MRI scanning, we have been able to detect the first subtle signs of Alzheimer’s disease in living people, or measure neural activation during specific mental tasks. Scientists can now map nearly any mental activity and pinpoint where in the brain people “experience” empathy, eye blinking, or even telling a lie.
My fascination with technology led me to wonder how all these new gadgets may be altering our brain function so I decided to study what happens to our brains when we carry out the common task of searching online. The results were striking.
People who had prior Internet experience showed significantly greater neural activity when searching online compared with those who had never done so. The other remarkable finding was that with relatively little practice — an hour each day for a week — the Internet novice showed highly significant increases in their neural circuits while searching online. And, the areas showing increases were in the frontal lobe of the brain in regions that control decision-making and short-term memory.
On average, these volunteers were in their mid-60s on average — so the idea that your brain may be too old to learn new technology tricks is a myth.
Our study results suggested that everyday computer activities as a form of brain exercise can strengthen brain cells and may even protect them from degeneration over time. The online search experience also allows us to increase or decrease the speed of the searching exercise depending on how much we want to push ourselves by looking at more websites, going back to others we recall, or slowing down the whole process by exploring information on one web page in greater depth.
When we compared the searching task to reading information in a book, we saw less neural activity while reading the book, perhaps because our brains are more efficient at reading a book page. After all, it takes less mental energy to absorb the text on a book page than to take in all that is happening on a web page.
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