‘Net Surfing Is Good for the Brain...at Any Age

'Net surfing is good exercise for the brain.

Posted Oct 19, 2009

‘Net Surfing Is Good for the Brain...at Any Age

I once helped a 92-year-old neighbor learn to use her computer. She was bright, eager, and an apt pupil, although that old error message that Microsoft used to deliver-something to the effect that you have committed an illegal act and your computer is therefore being shut down-sent her into a panic. She feared the cops at her door within the hour. I reassured her that computer-illegal and real-life-illegal are not the same thing, so she breathed a sigh of relief and pressed on in her (mostly successful) attempts to learn email, word processing, and the joys of Internet surfing.

Throughout our time together, I noticed that her main difficulty was a tendency to pay attention to everything. To her, all characters on her screen were of equal significance and deserved a careful read, from the top down and from left to right. I tried to correct her gently. "No, Pat, ignore the headings, the banner ads, the pop-ups, the advertising links down the sides. Don't read your Google list one item at a time in its entirety-scan down the titles and click rapidly to the next page until you find what you need," I instructed. It took a while, but Pat got the hang of the skill that every Internet user needs to develop: ignoring 95 percent of what's there in order to find the 5 percent that's useful.

Pat sometimes grew frustrated with her computer learning, bemoaning that she was-in her opinion-too slow. But for her age, her progress was quite rapid, I thought, considering the trial-and-error method I'd used to learn most of what I knew about the computer. And Pat had to stand up to some peers who decried her efforts. "Why are you messing around with the Internet?" another elderly neighbor chided her. "It's nothing but porn and Ponzi schemes." But Pat (with my help) persisted, and her efforts paid off. She emailed her kids, bought orthopedic shoes online, and booked her own vacation to Hawaii on a travel site.

At the time, I found great joy in helping Pat. She was an eager learner, and I felt as if my teaching was effective and useful to her. She, too, came to value her new skills-despite some frustrations and a bit of derision from her friends.

Now, what Pat and I learned from experience some dozen years ago (Pat is no longer my neighbor) has been confirmed by new research coming out of UCLA. Researchers there have used brain scans to show that just a few hours of surfing the Web can trigger increased activity in regions of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning.

The findings, presented October 19 at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, are significant because more and more research is confirming the "use it or lose it" hypothesis. When we use our brains to think through problems and process new information, we may be developing some "cognitive reserves" that may lessen the losses in function that seem to accompany aging.

According to a press release, the UCLA team worked with 24 healthy volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78. Half of them were daily Internet users. The other half had little experience. The volunteers first had their brains scanned with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while they surfed the Web. Then on seven days out of the following two weeks, they conducted Internet searches for an hour, "using the Internet to answer questions about various topics by exploring different websites and reading information." Then they underwent a second MRI, performing the same task as in the first brain scan.

The outcomes were, according to the press release, dramatic:

"The first scan of participants with little Internet experience demonstrated brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, which are located in the frontal, temporal, parietal, visual and posterior cingulate regions, researchers said. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the practice Internet searches at home, demonstrated activation of these same regions, as well as triggering of the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus - areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

"Thus, after Internet training at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns very similar to those seen in the group of savvy Internet users - after just a brief period of time."

"We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," says researcher Gary Small. He's a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. He's also co-author (with Gigi Vorgan) of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

"The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," says Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute. Moody and Small seem to have observed in the brain what I observed in the behavior of my elderly friend: gaining skill in Internet use means learning to skip over what's trivial and home in on what's important. And that has to be good for brains--at any age.

Sources and Notes:

In the accompanying brain images, "Naïve" refers to inexperienced Internet users. "Savvy" means those who habitually use the Internet. The second-scan images reveal that "Naives" have more activation of the frontal part of the brain (which is involved in working memory and decision-making) after their Internet experience.

"First-time Internet Users Find Boost in Brain Function After Just 1 Week," Press release from UCLA.

iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

According to the press release, Susan Y. Bookheimer, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute at UCLA, was also an author of this study. Himaja Gaddipati, a UCLA neuroscience student, and Jennifer Brace, a UCLA doctoral student in neuroscience, contributed to the work.

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