This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Research shows that Internet is rewiring our brains

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The generation gap has been upgraded. In a world brimming with ever-advancing technology, the generations are now separated by a "brain gap" between young "digital natives" and older "digital immigrants," according to Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA's Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and UCLA's Parlow-Solomon Chair on Aging.

"We know that technology is changing our lives. It's also changing our brains," Small said during a recent Open Mind lecture for the Friends of the Semel Institute, a group that supports the institute's work in researching and developing treatment for illnesses of the mind and brain. Small's talk centered around his recently published book, "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind."

The human brain is malleable, always changing in response to the environment, Small said. "A young person's brain, which is still developing, is particularly sensitive. ... It's also the kind of brain that is most exposed to the new technology."

Digital natives — young people born into a world of laptops and cell phones, text messaging and twittering — spend an average of 8 1/2 hours each day exposed to digital technology. This exposure is rewiring their brain's neural circuitry, heightening skills like multi-tasking, complex reasoning and decision-making, Small said. But there's a down side: All that tech time diminishes "people" skills, including important emotional aptitudes like empathy.
Dr. Gary Small.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, digital immigrants, born into a world of pocket calendars you penciled dates into and letters that got sent in the mail, have to work hard to embrace technology without the already-developed brain form and function. The good news, Small said, is that the flexible brain is eminently trainable.

He cited a recent UCLA study that assessed the effect of Internet searching on brain activity among volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76 — half of them well-practiced in searching the Internet, the other half not so. Semel Institute researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the subjects' brains while they surfed the 'Net. The result: Researchers found that the brains of the Web-savvy group reflected about twice as much activity compared to the brains of those who were not Web-savvy.

"A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults," Small said, "demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older."

These findings hold promise for older peoples' potential for enhancing their brainpower through the use of technology, said Small, an expert on the aging brain who has written several books to help people maintain vital brain function throughout their lives.

In "iBrain," his latest book, Small offers a Technology Toolkit that introduces some of the latest technology to digital immigrants. He also urges digital natives — and plugged-in digital immigrants — to cultivate their one-on-one people skills by making a conscious effort to unplug themselves from the computer and spend more time with friends and family.

To read more about his research, go to UCLA Newsroom.
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