How much do you use search engines to find information? If you do it quite a bit there’s research that shows that’s a good thing indeed. That is, if you’re middle-aged or older. If you’re young, maybe not so much.
Scientists at University of California Los Angeles have found that for those of us who are over the hill Web searching triggers activates key brain centers that control decision-making and complex reasoning skills. It may, in fact, improve and stimulate brain functioning overall. The study is the first to assess the impact of Web searching on brain functions. Given how long the Internet has been around, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for such a study to be conducted, but the results are surprising.
The head researcher on the project, Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA had this to say: “The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults. Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”
Apparently, as we age the brain undergoes structural and functional changes. There is reduction in cell activity, increases in deposits of amyloid plaques and tau tangles, which can impact cognitive function, and even outright atrophy. Pursuing activities that keep the mind engaged may help preserve brain health and cognitive ability. That much has been known for quite some time now. I recall a study awhile back that recommended crossword puzzles and such as a way to stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
In conducting the study, the team at UCLA used 24 research volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76, all with normal, healthy brains. Half of them had experience in Internet searching, the other half had no experience. All of the participants were of similar age and background.
Web searches and book reading tasks were performed by the participants while undergoing magnetic resonance imaging scans, which recorded the subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced during these activities. The scans were used to track the intensity of cell responses in the brain. This is accomplished by measuring the level of cerebral blood flow during the cognitive tasks.
There was major brain activity recorded in the appropriate centers during the book reading task, but there was a difference when it came to the Internet searches. The participants with Internet search experience also registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning.
Dr. Gary Small again: “Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience.”
During Web searching, volunteers with prior experience registered a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those with little Internet experience. Apparently the decisions required in order to pursue more information stimulate the brain more than simply reading a book. Dr. Small theorized that spending more time doing searches might well catch up the inexperienced group relative to the others. He added that the minimal brain activation found in the less experienced Internet group may be due to participants not quite grasping the strategies needed to successfully engage in an Internet search, which is common while learning a new activity.
So by all means, start searching! It’s good for your brain, and it may keep you from forgetting where you left the car keys.