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Is Google Making Us Smarter?

UCLA researchers report that searching the Internet may help improve brain function.

Over the summer, technology writer Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic that asked, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Amid anecdotes about people who believe that the information consumption paradigm enforced by the Internet promotes shallow thoughts over deep ruminations, Carr conceded, "We still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition."

Now one such study suggests that searching the Internet may help improve brain function.

The study, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Journal Of Geriatric Psychiatry, is the work of Gary Small, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, Teena D. Moody, Ph.D., a senior research associate at UCLA's Semel Institute, and Susan Y. Bookheimer, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute.

Small is also the author of iBrain: Surviving The Technological Alteration Of The Modern Mind, published on Monday. It includes further information about the impact of technology on the brain, not all of which is positive.

"The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," Small told the UCLA news service. "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."

The study involved 24 "neurologically normal" volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76, half of whom had prior Internet search experience. Participants' brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while they conducted Internet searches and read books.

The study participants showed similar brain activity when reading, but when searching online, those with prior Internet experience also showed activity in the frontal, the temporal, and the cingulate areas of the brain, areas associated with complex reasoning.

"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," Small said to the UCLA news service.

Small speculated that the less pervasive brain activity among those without Internet search experience might improve over time, as their understanding of Internet search strategies deepened.

Carr's concern about the impact of the Internet on the way we think isn't misplaced. Small's research and other studies make it clear that the information explosion and the tools we employ to contain it affect cognition. But it will take time before it's clear whether we should mourn the old ways, celebrate the new, or learn to stop worrying and love the Net.

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