Internet: The fastest teacher?

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Internet: The fastest teacher?
Elderly woman in blue dress smiling and sitting with laptop computer on her lap.
Is she smiling because her brain is getting stronger?

Staying mentally and physically active is a standard prescription for helping a healthy brain survive the assaults of aging. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, specialized software and bridge are all prized elements of the mental magic, even if the data on their true utility are a bit sketchy.

Is it time to scribble “Internet search” on the prescription pad? Maybe so, according to research reported this week to the Society for Neuroscience. Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles rounded up 24 volunteers, aged 55 to 78, and sorted out search users from non-users, who were rather hard to find, we are told.

Both groups endured two functional magnetic resonance (MR) scans, which detect blood flow through various parts of the brain, a good indicator of which areas were being used at the moment. Computer equipment cannot survive the intense magnetism inside an MR machine, so the volunteers performed a simulated Internet search during the scans.

World map showing country borders with individual shading depicting number of internet users
2007 figures from, Sbw01f

At the first scan, the “savvies” had more activity in brain regions associated with language, reading, memory and visual ability. Two weeks later, after both groups performed seven one-hour Internet searches, that difference was pretty well gone, says Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, who lead the study.

Enormous changes in the mental machine?

Small says he is not shocked to see such a fast change in the brain. “Your brain is quite an amazing organ. The brain is sensitive to whatever we expose it to from moment to moment; it’s quite reactive.”

Computer generated image of four brains with blue and red markings indicating brain activity
From original image: UCLA
Brain scans compare first (blue) and second (red) session. Arrow shows major change in brain activity in the second brain scan. In the second scans, which followed Internet training, activity is similar for naïve and savvy subjects.

The study, Small explains, “Shows that you can train the brain relatively quickly. An everyday activity, like searching the web, seems to activate areas involved in memory and complex reasoning.”

According to Teena Moody, the study’s first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute, “The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults.”

However, the study does not prove that Internet searching has real-world benefits, Small admits. “This is suggestive evidence that this exposure can do that in the short term, but whether that has any carryover to these aspects in daily life, I don’t know.”

Unfortunately, tests traditionally used to assess working memory and other faculties did not show any difference, says Small, co-author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. That, however, was something he expected, he says. “This is a small sample, and even in larger studies, the results of brain scans change, but the paper-and-pencil tests do not.”

Still, the location of the changes was suggestive. “It looks like this is telling us something real. These are not changes in random areas; these are areas that we know are used in cognitive activities.”

Hop aboard the brain train!

Brain training is a burgeoning business, but the results to date are somewhat limited, Small says. “We find you get better at the specific activity you are training. If it’s verbal reasoning, that’s what improves. If it’s rote memory, then rote memory improves. The ability to transfer that to everyday memory challenges is a little trickier.”

Could improving your brain be as simple as searching out a fusion Asian restaurant or a nature preserve on the web? Perhaps, but it’s also possible that all this net-work could be harmful…

As people ranging from toddlers to the elders spend more time with screens and keyboards, Small says it’s important to know how this will affect our brains. “We want to do this with larger samples. It’s important. Technology is only continuing to penetrate our everyday lives, and we want know the upside and the downside.”

– David Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. UCLA study