Surfing the Web: It’s Good For You!

15 Oct

A lot of recent social and cognitive research has been looking at the effects of technology and new media on human development. Some commentators believe that the way we interact with technology can lead to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and a sense of being unfulfilled (see continuous partial attention). Others have suggested that a symptom of modern technology is a prolonged immaturity among adults (see psychological neoteny).

I was interested to hear, then, that researchers at the University of California Los Angeles recently studied people doing web searches while their brain activity was recorded with functional magnetic resonance imaging scans. Importantly, this test marks the first time that researchers have simulated an internet search while scanning the brain.

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while performing web searches and book-reading tasks.

Both types of task produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning – but only in those who were experienced web users.

“Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function,” said Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA expert on aging.

Learning about these findings reminded me of the argument posited by Steven Johnson in his brilliant book; Everything Bad is Good for You. Johnson suggests that rather than merely offering dumb, simple pleasures, “popular culture has been growing increasingly complex over the past few decades, exercising our minds in powerful new ways”.

Without doubt, popular culture has become more complex – due in large part to the fragmentation of traditional media. This, in turn, has required cognitive adaptation and has impacted how we interpret and interact with the world (like searching the web). I think Nancy Miller offered the best description of this new complexity in her article for Wired Magazine:

 Music, television, games, movies, fashion: We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips – in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture – and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive).

Today, media snacking is a way of life. In the morning, we check news and tap out emails on our laptops. At work, we graze all day on videos and blogs. Back home, the giant HDTV is for 10-course feasting – say, an entire season of 24. In between are the morsels that fill those whenever minutes, as your mobile phone carrier calls them: a 30-second game on your Nintendo DS, a 60-second webisode on your cell, a three-minute podcast on your MP3 player.

In a time when technology changes faster than Amy Winehouse’s sobriety status, it can be tempting to join the chorus of critics that perpetually decry technology and pop culture as dumbing us all down. But, as this latest research from UCLA suggests, technology (the internet specifically) may actually endow us with a set of cognitive tools, like pattern recognition and systems analysis, that are crucial to our development – and which allow us to make sense of the times we live in.

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2 Responses to “Surfing the Web: It’s Good For You!”

  1. jdrake90 October 22, 2008 at 2:21 pm #

    I love this story – well written – this whole issue of the dangers and horrors of the web and technology on the human mind is ridiculous

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Information Addiction « Record | Preserve | Share - August 21, 2009

    […] to learn how technology and new media is impacting on human development (see my previous post, Surfing the Web: It’s good For You). Without doubt, popular culture has become more complex – due in large part to the fragmentation […]

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