Discovery

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Archive for the ‘Neuroscience’ Category

Further Thoughts on Google and the Active Brain

To continue on the question of whether Google makes us smarter:

Last week we noted new research showing that the brains of veteran Google searchers have more active neural circuits and brain regions while searching than novices.

The poster of the item added this smart-aleck remark—“I’m no neuroscientist, but it sounds like Google is making them smarter.” An actively thinking reader agreed, at least on the “no neuroscientist part.” She then added, “You can’t judge the quality or depth of thought by mere ‘brain activity.’ Indeed, a calm brain is often the sign of a thoughtful brain.”

From the desk of WSM Discovery

So which is more thoughtful–a calm brain or an active brain? For an answer, we returned to an actual neuroscientist, WSU’s Jaak Panksepp. His bottom line: It’s all good food for thought.

“Yes,” he wrote in an email, “abundant brain research does show that experts can proceed with a cognitive task by using their brain more efficiently, which is often reflected in less brain arousal than exhibited by novices.  Of course, the fly in the ointment is that each type of cognitive task needs to be taken on its own terms.

“With regard to the Internet, one could imagine that greater recruiting of diverse brain networks is a sign of sophisticated thinking.  However, this is just an interpretation rather than an established fact.   In this same vein, it may be worth noting that expert Zen meditators exhibit massive arousal of frontal lobe regions compared to novices.  What all these brain ‘correlates’ mean remains open to multiple interpretations.  As usual, correlates are not easily translated into causes, although they provide useful raw material for creative thinking about such ultra-complex BrainMind issues.”

But wait…does this mean we’re smarter on Google?

Readers of the recent not-off-the-presses, Internet-only edition of  Washington State Magazine will know that yours truly recently spent some time wringing his neurons over the fate of magazines, reading, and thinking in the digital age. Much like this whole Internet revolution of the past 15 or so years, it’s a fun and wild ride.

The piece at one point alludes to Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which contends we cease to think deeply if we power-browse and skim. Editor Tim Steury also did a drive-by of Carr’s thinking in his piece on how libraries are changing in the age of Google and pulled this Google-eyed viewfrom the book:

“The more pieces of information we ‘access’ and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.”

So which is it? When our noses are pressed up against the screen, are we thinking better or worse?

One intriguing piece of the answer came in an interview with Jaak Panksepp, a WSU neuroscientist, who explains in the video above how an Internet search activates the ancient, general purpose part of the brain involved in seeking things. A classic evolutionary analogy would say this system was used for hunting down prey, but Panksepp explains it’s also involved in  looking for water, sex, companionship, and, in the case of us information-age types, knowledge. You need not have hunted to know what this actually feels like. Think of chasing down a must-have item of clothing in a mall, or strolling in search of a good restaurant. It’s exciting stuff, and you can practically feel your medial forebrain bundle tingling.

Now comes more exciting research in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Using brain scans of web searchers, researchers found that the brain activity of novice Googlers was similar to someone simply reading, while veteran searchers used more than twice as many neural circuits and brain regions involved in complex thinking and decision making.

I’m no neuroscientist, but it sounds like Google is making them smarter.

More brain food can be found in the summer issue of Washington State Magazine.