A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

Posts Tagged ‘brain research’

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.

Back off, man, I’m a snake scientist

So let’s say you want to know just how a hooded cobra strikes its iconic pose–a mystery that has eluded researchers for more than 200 years.

How do you do it?

Very carefully.

Hooded cobra by Russ Cowling courtesy of Flickr

Ken Kardong, a professor in WSU’s School of Biological Sciences, and Bruce Young from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, inserted tiny electrodes in the necks of cobras and measured the electrical activity of different muscles as the snakes flared their necks.

“Doing the surgery was the riskiest part of the study because you have to work around the head but the snakes are prone to waking, which can be disconcerting,” Young told Inside JEB, a news page for the Journal of Experimental Biology, which features a research paper on the work.

The researchers found eight muscles involved in opening the hood. Two groups–the levator costae and the intercostal muscles–are key.

“A second set of muscles connecting ribs to skin primarily keep the skin taut, rather than to displace the ribs relative to the vertebrae,” the authors say in their paper’s abstract.A third set of muscles coursing between ribs function primarily to transmit forces between adjacent ribs rather than to move ribs.”

Young, B. A. and Kardong, K. V. (2010). The functional morphology of hooding in cobras. J. Exp. Biol. 213, 1521-1528.


Cobra hood mechanism revealed by electrode study (BBC News, April 17, 2010)

Remember that memory story…

If you enjoyed reading my WSM story on memory, check out this article from Monday’s New York Times. It gets into one of the deepest questions about memory, which is, how and when does the brain select which memories to keep and which to discard? We take in far more information every day than we can remember, and since our brains are of finite size, they can’t retain a record of everything.

New York Times article on memoryThe memories with the greatest staying power, says WSU psychologist Jay Wright, are those that are important to us personally, especially those with a strong emotional element. Such memories seem to be engraved so deeply in our minds that we can vividly recall a moment that occurred decades ago, even if we haven’t thought about it for years.

But scientists don’t know how that happens. The brain records many things in short-term memory but only a few make it into long-term storage. The hypothesis is that the brain has a mechanism to strengthen the synapses, or active connections between nerve cells, that encode memories that the brain deems to be worth keeping longer.

The work described in the NYT article is a big step in understanding that process. Researchers at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, working with rats, have identified a protein that accumulates in heavily-used nerve endings, those that receive a lot of input from other neurons. The protein probably has something to do with stabilizing those synapses and creating long-term memories, because the scientists have also found that a drug that interferes with the protein destroys the memory of something the rats had learned weeks or months ago.