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How Searching the Web Affects Long-term Brain Functioning

As technology becomes more and more integrated into daily life, parents and teachers worry that it is causing people to lose their ability to think. Will people have less able long term memories if they can instantly recall data via their iPhone? Will people lose their spatial awareness if they can program their GPS devices to direct them everywhere?

Two recent studies focused on Internet searching behavior shed light on the subject. Taken together, they show that while extended use of new technologies definitely affects the brain, the effect is neither negative nor positive. The human brain has always learned from and adapted to new circumstances. More important to long-term brain behaviors and abilities is the interaction between an Internet search and the user’s goal.

Searching the Internet to Learn

Researchers at Penn State have sought to define Internet search behavior in terms of a learning model. People have different learning reasons for searching the Internet at different times, and thus different brain functioning. In their study, “Using the taxonomy of cognitive learning to model online searching,” (Elsevier, June 2009) Jensen et al. asked participants to complete Internet searches designed to access specific low to high levels of learning – remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

The Task Determines the Search Behavior

Researchers tracked “number of queries, query length, unique terms, number of topics, session duration, [and] number of result pages viewed” for each of 476 searching tasks to determine whether different learning goals resulted in different types of searches. When participants were applying and analyzing they used more search terms, stayed online longer, and found more sources of information than when remembering and understanding. This difference is not entirely unexpected since applying and organizing are higher level tasks than remembering and understanding.

Interestingly, evaluating and creating (the highest level tasks) looked similar to remembering and understanding in terms of online searching behavior. The researchers hypothesize that when users evaluate or create, they look for facts in their online searches. They then rely on their own intellect, creativity, and decision making skills to complete the tasks offline.

The Penn State study showed that people’s behavior varies according to the task at hand. Thus, people are adapting new technologies to their own unique purposes rather than blindly following links. At UCLA’s Center for Aging, Dr. Gary Small and his colleagues proved that not only does only behavior vary, but brain patterns can vary as well.

Online Searching Activates the Brain

In “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching,” (American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, February 2009), Small et al. reported that conducting online searches activates all of the same brain functioning as reading plus some more. The researchers performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) on subjects age 55-75 while they did two different tasks – searching the Internet for information requested by the researchers and reading a text about the same information.

Both tasks activated brain regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual functioning. For half of the subjects in the study, the Internet was a relatively unfamiliar experience. The other half of the subjects were considered experienced Internet users. For the experienced Internet users only, the search for information activity also activated areas of the brain controlling decision making and complex reasoning.

Seniors can use the Internet to Problem Solve

Just as in the Penn State study, users were not simply pointing and clicking, but using the Internet to augment a problem solving process. The authors cautiously attribute the results to the specific nature of the Internet and suggest that it may be helpful for aging adults to learn to use the Internet in order to alter their brains’ abilities to problem solve.

These studies point to the fact that new technologies are neither brain destroying nor brain enhancing. Rather, it is the task that matters. Searching to learn, expanding one’s horizons, stretching one’s intellect, and trying unfamiliar tasks exercise the brain whether they are done online or with traditional tools like encyclopedias and newspapers.

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