So much for the theory that internet browsing is bad for our brains. We’ve had so many articles of the Is Google Making Us Stupid variety of late that I was almost beginning to believe them.
Now we finally have an actual piece of research, based on evidence as opposed to the surely-it-must-and-isn’t-it-awful-ism that seems to be the favoured brain activity of most press and pundits.
This first study to assess the impact of internet searching, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, has concluded that internet searching and browsing exercise the mind more than conventional, linear reading.
The study focussed on readers aged 55 to 76 and, says principal investigator Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at University of California: “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.”
They divided their cohort Net Naive (minimal search engine experience) and Net Savvy (extensive search experience) and both sets performed web searches and read books while undergoing fMRI brain scans.
All study participants showed significant brain activity during the book-reading task, in the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, and the same level of brain activity during internet searching. But the Net Savvy group also showed activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning, while surfing.
In an excellent article over at Lateral Action, poet Mark McGuiness argues that this is because when we read on the internet we are not zoned-out zombies but active and engaged participants: “skimming through streams of links and updates for interesting pieces; zooming in by clicking on the link; scanning the text to get the gist of it; slowing down to clarify understanding of an important point; moving backwards and forwards in the text; opening other tabs to compare and contrast different pages… engaging the authors and other readers in debate.”
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