Posted on 21 October 2009
By Mark Miller
Worried about losing it as you age? Google it.
Research by a leading scientist in the fields of memory and longevity suggests that searching the Internet triggers key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning–and that searching the Web may help stimulate and boost brain function for certain people middle-aged and older.
“It definitely activates your brain,” says Dr. Gary Small, a professor at UCLA and director of the university’s Center on Aging. “Whether it makes you smarter or not is a matter of debate.”
Small will be presenting findings on the impact of technology on aging brains on Oct. 30 at the second annual UCLA Technology and Aging Conference in Los Angeles. The conference focuses on the trend toward greater longevity and how technology can help people live better as they age.
Small’s findings are based, in part, on a study that compared the brain activity of volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76 who were searching the Web with that of others who were asked to read a book. Half of the study participants were experienced at searching the Internet, while the other half had no experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups.
The study participants performed Web searches and book-reading tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, which track the intensity of cell responses in the brain by measuring the level of cerebral blood flow while tasks are being performed.
The group of participants who were experienced users of the Internet showed increased activity in the parts of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. Even technical neophytes were able to trigger key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning after just one week of surfing the Web.
“Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading,” said Small, who’s also the director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center. “Searching activates the frontal lobe because there is a lot of decision-making to do–analyzing the results and deciding what to go ahead and click on. Reading is a bit more passive.”
[amazon-product]0061340332[/amazon-product]Small has compared the effect of digital technology on older and younger brains. It’s one of the topics covered in a book he wrote recently with co-author Gigi Vorgan examining the interactions of the brain and technology, called “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind” (Collins Living, 2008).
In the book, Small compares the impact of technology on two groups he describes as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” The natives are members of the generations that have grown up with digital technology around them–iPods, cell phones, video games, the Web and social media. The immigrants–today’s boomers and seniors–didn’t grow up with digital technologies but have adapted them into their lives to varying degrees over the course of their lifetimes.
“We know that our brains are sensitive to stimuli from moment to moment,” Small says. “Information comes into your eye as stimulus, goes through the retina and is translated into neuro-chemical events and passed along the neural network.
“The basic principle is that the more time you spend with a particular mental task, the stronger the neural circuits will be that control it. The more a task is neglected, the weaker it gets. So, the environment is changing–younger people are spending a lot of time with technology so they become hard-wired at that. But they don’t spend as much time communicating face to face. They have Facebook skills, but their people skills may be lagging.”
Older digital immigrants, on the other hand, may have better face-to-face skills but are reluctant to come to the technology. “That’s the brain gap,” says Small. “We want to find ways to upgrade the technology skills of the immigrants.”
Surveys on Internet usage suggest that today’s seniors haven’t fully migrated, but baby boomers–tomorrow’s seniors–are fully assimilated. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that Internet users over age 65 use the Internet somewhat less proportionately to their overall share of the population, while boomer usage is about on par.