Regularly searching the Internet activates regions of the brain that are known to be involved in decision making and complex reasoning, according to a new study led by UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small.
The study, currently in press at the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, involved 24 participants between the ages of 55 and 76. Twelve had previous experience searching the Internet; 12 were self-described as “Net naïve.” The groups were matched for age, education, and gender.
Study subjects were given an Internet search task to complete while their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Searching the Internet was replicated using images viewed through specialized goggles, and the use of a finger pad with which study participants could make selections on screen. Both groups were also given a control task of reading text on a computer screen.
Small and colleagues found that there was a significant difference in brain activity between the two groups during the Internet searching task. The “Net Savvy” subjects showed greater brain activation, particularly in the frontal lobe, which is known to be involved in decision making and complex reasoning. When the Net Naïve group searched the Internet, their brain activity resembled the activity during the reading task.
“It suggests a lot of interesting hypotheses,” says Small, who has consulted with a company that focuses on brain fitness for seniors. “One is that you can train the brain with the Internet so it really engages these extensive neural circuits.”
As for potential cognitive benefits, Small is optimistic, but cautious. “Probably what you’re going to find from people who work out their brain searching the Internet is that they’re going to be better at searching the Internet,” he says, but whether there could be broader benefits is as yet unknown.