Googling is good for the ageing brain
Could Googling actually be good for you? That is the conclusion drawn by researchers who believe that searching the internet could improve brain function – at least among older people.
A team from the Center on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that searching the web can stimulate the brain more than other activities such as reading a book.
In a study to be published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, the researchers say they examined the neurological activity of adults aged between 55 and 76 as they conducted a number of tasks.
The study took two groups of older people, one picked for their knowledge of the internet, the other for being less technologically adept. The participants were then placed inside an MRI scanner and asked to take part in a series of activities including reading books and performing internet searches.
While both groups saw overall brain activity increase during the tasks, the internet-based assignments created a greater burst of activity in the web-savvy users. In particular, the researchers said, they stimulated areas of the brain linked to decision making and reasoning – producing up to twice as much activity as their technologically challenged counterparts.
Although the study group was small – just 24 subjects – lead researcher Professor Gary Small said he believed the findings showed that engaging with technology could have important benefits for mental fitness.
"The study results are encouraging: emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," he said. "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function."
Some technological gizmos aimed at older people have come in for criticism – particularly "brain training" games, which make explicit claims about helping keep the mind young by guiding users through mental gymnastics.
The craze led to millions of Japanese adults buying video game systems in order to play quizzes and logic puzzles. Since then heavy marketing from companies like Nintendo – which has used famous faces such as Julie Walters, Chris Tarrant and Johnny Ball – has encouraged millions of British adults to follow suit.
Elsewhere search engines such as Google have been accused of presiding over a dumbing down of information. Internet critic Nicholas Carr claimed websites were reducing levels of concentration and encouraging flighty behavior. That opinion was reflected by research showing that readers of academic texts on the web often engage in so-called "horizontal skimming" – reading a small portion and then heading off somewhere else. But Small said that his study showed using technology could have positive effects on the mind.
"There's so much interest in exercising our minds as we age," he said. "One result of this study is that these technologies are not all bad. They may be good in keeping our brains active."