Googling and intelligence

Earlier this week, UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center released a summary of the results of a study of the effects of Internet searching on brain activity, timed to coincide with the release of a new book, iBrain, by the center’s director, Gary Small. In the study, Small and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track the blood flows in the brains of 24 middle-aged and elderly volunteers as they either searched the web or read books. When the test subjects read books, they displayed, as would be expected, significant brain activity in “the regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.” When the subjects searched the Web, those who already had experience using the Net also displayed considerable activity in the brain regions that “control decision-making and complex reasoning.” (Those without Net experience displayed much less activity in those regions.)

In a great example of the kind of knee-jerk mental response that often characterizes high-speed media, a number of blogs and other media outlets seized on the study as evidence that the Net is “making us smarter.” The findings were portrayed as a counterweight to my recent article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” which argued that the Internet may be eroding our capacity for deep and concentrated thought. Wired’s Epicenter blog, for instance, brayed, “All that talk about how Google is making us stupid is a bit of a crock, according to a new study from UCLA researchers.” The Epicenter headline: “Google Makes You Smart.”

Not quite.

I’m thrilled, first of all, that brain researchers are beginning to explore the cognitive consequences of Internet use, and I look forward to reading Small’s full report on his study when it is published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. This study, and the many others that are sure to follow, will begin to give us a picture of what happens when our brains adapt to the Web and its distinctive style of transmitting and displaying information. But this picture will necessarily develop slowly and fuzzily. FMRI scans have been a godsend to brain researchers, but the evidence they present is often imprecise. Blood flows in the brain tell us much about what the brain is doing but very little about the quality of thought that results. And when we’re talking about intelligence, it’s the quality of thought that matters.

It’s good to know that older people can, apparently, get some brain exercise through googling – and that that may help them maintain their mental acuity. But to leap from observing that many areas of the brain are activated when searching the Net to the contention that searching the Net makes us more intelligent is like saying that doing pushups improves our carpentry skills. I would guess that you’d see similarly broad brain activity patterns in, say, people playing Pac-man. Does that mean that Pac-man makes us more intelligent? No, it just means that playing Pacman involves many brain circuits.

The Freakonomics blog had a good take on the study:

Small’s team found that experienced web users experience increased stimulation in the regions of their brains that handle complex reasoning and decision making. The activity was more widespread than when the same subjects were reading a book, or when inexperienced web users surfed the internet. In other words, being able to tease out useful information from all the chaff on the internet can be as intellectually demanding a task as completing a crossword puzzle. But is puzzle solving the same kind of “smartness” as the “smartness” that comes from reading a book?

Indeed, I wonder whether the fact that more brain regions are in simultaneous use during web use than during reading doesn’t illustrate (among other things) that concentrated thought becomes more difficult to maintain when reading online than when reading a printed work. Is the relative breadth of brain activity discovered by Small and his colleagues also a map of distraction?

Gary Small wrote a letter to the Atlantic in response to my article. “Nicholas Carr correctly notes that technology is changing our lives and our brains,” he said, continuing:

The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology (computers, PDAs, TV, videos), and much less time engaging in direct social contact. Our UCLA brain-scanning studies are showing that such repeated exposure to technology alters brain circuitry, and young developing brains (which usually have the greatest exposure) are the most vulnerable … More than 300,000 years ago, our Neanderthal ancestors discovered handheld tools, which led to the co-evolution of language, goal-directed behavior, social networking, and accelerated development of the frontal lobe, which controls these functions. Today, video-game brain, Internet addiction, and other technology side effects appear to be suppressing frontal-lobe executive skills and our ability to communicate face-to-face. Instead, our brains are developing circuitry for online social networking and are adapting to a new multitasking technology culture.

What Small’s work shows us, above all else, is that Internet use does alter the functioning of our brains, changing how we think and even who we are. We are googling our way, compulsively, to a new mind.

5 thoughts on “Googling and intelligence

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Sorry Nick, I often agree with your observations, but I think this stuff is classic junk science, putting a pseudo-scientific gloss on what is at heart nothing more than a polemic about anxiety over new technology.

    Does that mean that Pac-man makes us smarter?

    But playing Pac-man DOES make us smarter – in the sense of cognitive activity. Compared to back-breaking labor of working on a farm 16 hours a day, or being an assembly-line cog, absolutely.

    Look, I know the fogeyism is that recreations young people like are BAD, and recreations that middle-aged or old men like are GOOD – but science proves neither one.

    “Internet use does alter the functioning of our brains, changing how we think and even who we are …”

    That’s utter nonsense in any but the most trivial sense. It’s a fear-mongering reactionary play to the audience, an OH-MY-GOD alarmism.

    [tedious elaboration – at that level, everything we do has roughly the same sort of “change”, that’s what I mean by “trivial”.]

  2. alan

    As much as one might make assumptions from the summery, or even the full report once released, there can be no question that the pivotal element is the age of those who are using contemporary technologies.

    There can be no question that very young users of such technologies are going to be changed much more radically than those who have already reached maturity. Changed both physiology and as social beings that have been, to some degree, immobilized whilst growing through the early milestones of their mental and physical development.

    One only needs to ponder the exhaustive research done relating TV viewing and early childhood development.

    The question might be, is this only about intelligence or more importantly social capacity and cultural healthiness?

    Are “we are googling our way, compulsively, to a new mind” and a cultural reality that makes any such intelligence hardly worth it?

    Greetings Seth; “everything we do has roughly the same sort of “change;” only if participation is “balanced” between both technological involvement and other activities that bring some balance, like a walk through the forest!


  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Alan, in terms of save-the-children, I can think of many factors that I suspect have much more impact regarding “Changed both physiology and as social beings that have been, to some degree, …”

    Prenatal nutrition, breastfeeding, type of day/home care, whether the child is subjected to being hit, and so on.

    For that matter, from an evolutionary standpoint, humans probably aren’t designed live in nuclear family units – the Western industrial lifestyle has a lot to recommend it, but it sure doesn’t match how people have lived for the entire existence of homo sapiens as a species.

    (my favorite speculation along these lines is that we’ve gotten too hygenic – that some dirt and germs are necessary for the development of properly functioning immune system).

    But e.g. “appear to be suppressing frontal-lobe executive skills” – that’s just a high-class version of tabloid quality “HOW TECH IS HARMING YOUR KIDS!”

  4. Lee

    You and the researchers you refer to seem to assume that those kids who interact with electronic media for an average of eight hours a day would have otherwise spent their time reading. This is a dubious assumption. A child born circa 1975 would very likely have spent enormous amounts of time passively watching television, an arguably less challenging pursuit than writing a blog post or reading an article on a Web site.

  5. Linuxguru1968

    In the past one hundred years no researcher has found any way to increase the subjectively measured quantity we call IQ. Up to a certain point, Googling does not incease brain activity beyond a set point. The study assumes that brain activity is synonmous or indicative of intelligence. The stubbling block when you talk about IQ is that it’s the EFFECTIVE intelligence that counts – its what you actually do with it that counts NOT some static number on a test report. How many earth shattering inventions were made by members of Mensa. None;most of the import inventions were made by people with moderate intelligence but motivated by novel demands in their enviroment. Good WillHunting can Google all he wants; until he rocks the world with something like TV, computers, telephones or cars – hes just a neurological faker.

Comments are closed.