I’ve been really getting my science geek on lately, interviewing a series of experts on their brain research. In my hunt for greater understanding of how people use search engines, and how the brain is affected by using the internet, I interviewed Dr. Gary Small, MD, a Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Dr. Small is also Founding Director of the UCLA Memory Clinic and Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, as well as the author of a number of ground breaking books, including The Memory Bible, The Memory Prescription, The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program, and the book that really caught my attention: iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.
Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Dr. Small.
HL: How did you get into this field, and what brought you to the “iBrain” concept?
GS: As a geriatric psychiatrist, I’ve been fascinated by the brain for decades. Most of my work has been on the aging brain, how our bodies and our brains change with wear and tear over the years. A lot of my research is in Alzheimer’s prevention, but also improving memory and improving brain health.
I’ve spent my career developing technologies to study the brain. I invented the first brain scan technology to see Alzheimer’s disease in living people. My fascination with technology—how we can use technology to study the brain, and how all the new technologies are affecting our brain function—led to me writing iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.
HL: Would you walk me through the research in laymen’s language? How did you conduct your research?
GS: I said to my collaborators, “Gee, I’d like to know what the brain looks like when it searches online for the first time.” I asked Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a neuropsychologist who really knows the functional MRI technology, “Could we do this in the scanner?” She replied, “Yes, we can present different kinds of environments and different experimental protocols to your subjects. We have these goggles that allow us to monitor what’s going on.”
So we did this study, “Your Brain on Google.” It was the first study where anybody had looked at the brain and how it functions while searching online or reading a book. We got a research assistant to work with us, and came up with this design where we would compare two different groups: one that is naive to the Internet experience and another that has experience. They were asked to do two kinds of mental tasks during the experiment, reading a book, and searching online.
That was the experiment.
It turned out the only people we could find who were naive to Internet searching were older people.
HL: I’ve see a lot of heat map studies where they participants used those special goggles for the researchers to track their behavior onscreen, but did you have something connected to their heads as well?
GS: Yes, we used an MRI scanner. MRI generally gives you a snapshot of brain structure. Conventionally it’s used to find tumors, or shrinking atrophy of the brain, or a blood clot. But you can alter that scanner for these type kinds of research studies, so that it shows you brain blood flow from moment to moment. For instance, if you put someone in the scanner and show them a strobe light, all their blood will go the occipital part of the brain, the visual cortex, because that is the part of the brain that controls it.
For this study we said, “We’ll put you in the scanner and we want you to read this book page. Push the button when you want to turn the page,” and, “We’ll put you in the scanner and now we want you to search online.” Then we measure their blood flow (to various parts of the brain) while they’re doing that task.
HL: You had already hypothesized that computer searches and other online activities caused measurable and rapid alterations to brain neural circuitry, particularly in people with previous computer experience. Did you also test people without that experience and then compare and contrast?
GS: We compared people who had never searched online with people who had searched online. We know, from other experiments, that the brain is sensitive to any other mental stimuli. If you practice something, the effects will increase. Now, there is an inverted u‑shaped curve, so if you practice a lot and get really good at something, we’ll actually see less brain activity. A kind of brain efficiency kicks in.
With Internet searching, it seems that we keep pushing the envelope. We like that feel of something new and something exciting, so we continue to see that upsurge in brain activity. In part 2 of the experiment, we took the naive people and we had them practice for an hour a day for a week.
We saw significant increases. We put them back in the scanner. We saw that their brains had learned how to do it.
Think about when you get a car, or a new stereo, or any new thing. You try to read the manual and you haven’t got a clue. You can’t even figure out how to set the clock.
GS: If I put you in the scanner, when you were doing that, you wouldn’t see a lot of activity. You would see random activity throughout the brain. Once you figure out, “Ah! I have push this button, and then I turn this, and then I can set the clock,” that’s when there’d be a surge in the activity in the appropriate brain area. Once you got really good at setting the clock, there is very little activity in the scanner, but your brain would work better.
HL: What is the big picture takeaway from your study?
GS: Well first of all, our brains are very sensitive to any stimuli. Number two, when you continue to stimulate the brain with a repeated stimulus, it becomes efficient in responding to that stimulus. Actually it becomes less interested.
I think what it’s showing us is that our brain are looking for all kinds of new things. As a marketer, you want to get people interested in new stuff. For instance, right now my wife and I are trying to sell another book. What’s new about it? How does this differ from the previous one? Why should people be interested? Where’s that “Aha moment”? Oh I didn’t know about that. I want to learn more about that…
We can see in the brain the corresponding neural circuitry that reflects those kinds of mental experiences.
I find this type of thing fascinating, and my (increasingly efficient) brain is looking for way to tie this information in to help marketers connect with prospects online. Hope you enjoyed it… and as always, if you have any comments about this interview, I’d love to hear them!
Author, Internet Marketing Speaker, Trainer and Consultant