We often read articles informing us about new research on human brain, with some spectacular results. This is relatively a new trend. The invent of fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology in 1990s revolutionized brain research, making it possible to explore the dynamics of human brain without use of invasive methods. At the beginning of this revolution fMRI was available only in few laboratories. Then, it became more and more prevalent. Now, there is a fMRI imaging facility in almost every research university. Thousands of articles are published every year, exploring different aspects of the relation between the human brain, behavior, cognition and neuropsychological conditions. Because the study topic is our very own brain, brain research attracts more attention from public than many other scientific fields.
Among the massive number of articles published, some attract the attention of journalists. Media professionals write articles or develop TV programs about the most innovative brain research and introduce the public the horizons of an exciting research field, studying the human brain and cognition.
It is all good up to this point. However, writing a news article on brain research requires simplification of the methodology used, getting rid of boring technical details, and polishing the results to make them more interesting. However the polishing act is often exaggerated, to the extent that, the results reported in the original research manuscript seems totally irrelevant to what is written in the article. The examples are abundant, but I will focus on one recent case.
In 2009, Gary Small and his colleagues published a paper, titled “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching”, exploring the differences in brain activation, during an Internet search task, between two groups of participants, one group including 12 adults with minimal search engine experience (Net Naïve) and the other including 12 adults with extensive experience (Net Savvy). The results showed that, while the net naïve group had, on average, activations similar to the activations in a reading task, the net savvy group had activations “in additional regions controlling decision making, complex reasoning, and vision.” I learned about this study when I overheard people talking about new research showing that “Internet makes us smarter.” I think it is an enormous, and an unrealistic, jump to infer that using search engines makes us smaller because in a study conducted with 24 people, it was found that net savvy people had more extensive activations in their brain while doing internet search. – I think a better way of testing if the net savvy people have better cognitive skills would be to give different cognitive tests to participants and compare the results between the two groups. – While the original research paper does not talk about “getting smarter”, blogs and news articles enthusiastically reported “the latest research”, giving us the good news: “Google makes us smarter.”
The idea that more activation means higher and better function is grounded in a machine – human brain metaphor. According to this metaphor, just like the way a car with a better engine is generally louder (e.g. Ferrari) and has more things going in it, a “smarter brain” should also have higher and more extensive activations during a cognitive test. However, human brain is not an engine and depending on the conditions more activation might actually indicate lower cognitive performance. For example, in many cognitive tests (e.g. mathematical) experts have considerably less brain activation compared to beginners. Less activation may also indicate a higher level of concentration. Richard Davidson’s research on Buddhist monks show that “expert” monks have considerably less activation during meditation, compared to less experienced meditators.
I do not think that using a search engine necessarily makes us smarter or more stupid. I also don’t think that we can find this out by looking at brain activations. Our desire to find simple answers to complex questions haunts us in this case. Human brain is one of the most complex phenomena we have been faced with. Neuroscientists seem to be aware of it, therefore they do not write these far stretching speculations in their articles, but it is rather people who do not have the expertise to interpret brain research that make the most speculative and unfounded claims.
Links to articles & commentary about Gary Small’s research
Official UCLA press release about the study:
Commentary on The Guardian:
The CNN article “Google Does a Brain Good”