This Is Your Brain on Facebook

Wide Angle / by Rob Mitchum /

Recent studies on the effects of the internet and other new media on brain plasticity raises an open research question: Is Google making us smarter?

Adapted from the cover of Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, one of the early figures to warn against the negative effects of popular media — in this case, comic books — on society at large.

Concerns that the latest fad is rotting the minds of our children have never faded. The target of such worries has only drifted from television to rock music to video games. So when a British neuroscientist warned the House of Lords earlier this year about the damaging neural effects of the internet and social networking sites, the only surprise was that it took so long.

“I suggest that social networking sites might tap into the basic brain systems for delivering pleasurable experience,” said Baroness Susan Greenfield in her parliamentary remarks on February 12. “As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.”

Greenfield’s comments had little scientific basis, and the British media reacted to her with their usual brand of sober decorum. (The Daily Mail chose the headline “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist.”)

But it’s all been said before. One can simply swap out “social networking sites” for television, the telephone, or even books and find similar testimony. However, if one can stomach Greenfield’s alarmism, an inference is clear: The internet is now so pervasive in our society, it would be foolish to think it weren’t having some kind of effect on our brains.

“It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,” Greenfield said. Though she hedges with the shift to “minds,” other scientists agree that she is probably correct about the way in which popular media exerts its influence over our brains’ inherent plasticity.

“Everything you do changes your brain,” says Daphne Bavelier, associate professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. “When reading was invented, it also made huge changes to the kind of thinking we do and carried changes to the visual system.”

But unlike with previous media technology that immersed our collective attention and spurred the fears of overprotective parents, we now have the tools to study just how the machines we use shape our brains. It’s surprising then that so little work has been done. Though correlations between excessive internet use and ADHD, social anxiety, and depression have been probed, few laboratories have specifically looked at effects of such media upon brain activity.

The study of adult brain plasticity, how the brain continues to dramatically change its wiring and function long after early development, has picked up speed in recent years as scientists realize that the brain is not static, but truly never stops reorganizing itself in response to the world. While in-depth examinations of what changes on a cellular and molecular scale remain very difficult in humans, indirect measures of brain changes, such as fMRI images, have strongly suggested that the adult brain is a highly malleable organ.

In February one lab published what may be the first study to examine how internet use affects our brains. Gary Small and colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles used fMRI to study observed brain activation of subjects interacting with a simulated search engine. Comparisons between “net savvy” and “net naive” groups of senior citizens — young internet-ignorant subjects were too hard to find, Small says — revealed increased brain activity in the experienced Googlers as they performed the internet task, particularly in the frontal cortex, right temporal cortex, anterior and posterior cingulate, and hippocampus. The more active brain, Small says, reflects recruitment of more brain systems in the active process of browsing the Web. Such processing involves not just the visual and language regions active during passive reading, but also frontal regions associated with decision making and short-term working memory.

More intriguing was the second phase of the study (as yet unpublished, save for in Small’s book with Gigi Vorgan, iBrain), in which Small and his colleagues asked the Google rookies to go home and train by searching the internet for an hour a day for five days. When the test subjects came back and were rescanned, the researchers found that the net-naive had already increased activation in the frontal areas where they had previously lagged behind the net-savvy.

Such rapid changes lead Small to believe that our brains are evolving rapidly, as computer and internet use comes to dominate our waking hours. A similar change, he points out, likely occurred early in human evolution when tools were invented, creating a new environmental pressure. The choice of a dominant hand for wielding a tool led the human brain to evolve a neural representation of handedness, with motor areas for hand movement larger in left hemisphere for right-handers and vice versa. “Our environment is changing and we’re spending hours and hours with technology — something’s got to give,” Small says.

The nature of these changes, and whether they are beneficial or detrimental to humans in the long run, remains to be fully revealed. As Greenfield’s comments illustrate, much of the discussion can’t help but rush headlong to the pessimistic conclusion that any changes caused by technology will be negative. Even Nicholas Carr’s examination of how human thought might be altered by technology (in the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly), was saddled with the diminutive, fretful headline of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The concerns about our internet-addled brains ring familiar to the neurobiologists working in another field at the intersection of popular technology and brain plasticity: video games. Imaging studies indicate that, like in Small’s internet task, playing a video game in an fMRI machine activates regions across the brain, from frontal lobe gyri to occipital areas associated with vision. But some studies have gone beyond the inconclusive, pretty colors of fMRI scans to look at how playing a video game can actually mold behavior.

Daphne Bavelier’s work at Rochester attracted attention in 2003 when Nature published her paper with C. Shawn Green on visual attention in video game players. Green, himself an avid video game player, found that he was too good for the visual attention task (a simple game in which a subject is asked to identify quickly flashing shapes amid distracting stimuli) he was trying to design. The experience gave Green and Bavelier a hunch that regular gamers in general might be better at navigating such visual tasks due to the hundreds of hours spent on games that far surpass the study’s point-and-click tasks in complexity, but which likely train the same attention skills.

The resulting study found that, yes, gamers were better at the task than nongamers, and that nongamers’ could improve their performance with training. Since that paper, Bavelier’s group has shown a wide range of improved visual abilities in avid gamers (including a paper last month postulating that in some cases, games could be used as a substitute for corrective lenses), and they expect to demonstrate similar effects on more complex problem-solving and decision-making processes.

Bavelier says that these games are “extremely powerful” in terms of brain plasticity. “The real goal for us,” she says, “is to understand why there is so much transfer of learning. It’s unusual to think just shooting robots and zombies will actually help you in larger range of tasks — not just visual tasks but things we consider as being more cognitive, like improved attention.”

That research pursuit could lead to better-designed educational tools or rehabilitation options for people with brain disorders, Bavelier says. As she wrote in a recent review in the journal Psychology and Aging, the ability of popular games to manipulate the natural reward systems of the human brain, one of the central tenets of Susan Greenfield’s doomsaying, may actually be why they are so effective at changing the brain for both better and worse.

Small and Bavelier’s research suggests that actually researching, rather than just baselessly speculating about, the effect of popular media on brain activity and function reveals more benefits than ill consequences. Although both researchers caution that the brain’s limited resources mean that strengthening certain regions and processes may weaken others, that trade-off still remains worlds away from the dire warnings from Greenfield and others before her.

“We tend to oversimplify when we argue whether technology is making us smart or making us stupid,” Small says. “The brain is complex and technology is complex; it’s the content, timing, and balance of what we’re doing that’s important. We can argue whatever we want with so little data. It’s not settled; we need to study it. These are the technologies that are part of our lives, so we need to be scientific about it and not conclude from the outset whether it’s all good or all bad. We need to understand it and use it in a way to enhance our lives.”

Originally published April 21, 2009

Tags cognition intelligence networks proof systems theory

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