October 28, 2008

Studies Suggest Internet Use Alters The Brain

Neuroscientists believe the Internet is changing the way people live as well as altering the way our brains work.

Some argue it is an evolutionary change that will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.

Studies have found that Internet searching and text messaging have made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions, said Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specializes in brain function.

He says that technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity but it can also create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.

But the people who will come out on top in the next generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills, small argues.

"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills," he said.

"They will know when the best response to an email or Instant Message is to talk rather than sit and continue to email."

Small explores how technology has altered the way young minds develop, function and interpret information for his newly released fourth book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind".

He is currently the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA, where he said the brain was very sensitive to the changes in the environment such as those brought by technology.

A study of 24 adults observed as they used the Web and found that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.

"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others," said Small.

"We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."

But Small believes such multi-tasking could cause problems.

He has labeled the tech-savvy generation "digital natives" as they are always scanning for the next bit of new information that can create stress and even damage neural networks.

"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.

"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control of it."


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