“The plasticity of our brain, which allows it to be modified both in its function and in its structure (Kolb and Whishaw, 1998), has been key in the great capacity of adaptation to the environment of the human being, allowing us to adapt to a multitude of environments and colonize all corners of the Earth.”
Among other functions, this malleability makes possible that, in interaction with the environment, we can increase our cognitive reserve, allowing this in turn a greater cerebral plasticity. The concept of cognitive reserve refers to the fact that, in the performance of tasks that require greater brain activity in a certain area, the ability to use alternative brain networks more effectively is developed, which can serve as a mechanism of self-protection against, for example, the cognitive deterioration associated with age or before an injury caused by trauma (Rodríguez-Álvarez and Sánchez-Rodríguez, 2004).
What is the impact of using the Internet in this use of cognitive resources?
Effect of the use of computers on cognitive performance
Patricia Tun and Margie Lachman (2010), from the University of Brandeis, conducted a study with a sample taken from the MIDUS program (Development of the Middle Ages in the United States). This sample, composed of 2671 participants, included a range of adults between 32 and 84 years of age, of different socioeconomic status and different educational level.
In the first place, the participants answered a series of questions that evaluated the frequency with which they used their computer. After this, by means of a battery of tests, different cognitive domains were measured such as episodic verbal memory, the capacity of working memory, executive function (verbal fluency), inductive reasoning and processing speed. In addition, another test was performed that measured the reaction time and the speed with which the participants alternated between two tasks, which required a substantial performance of the central executive functions, which in turn play a critical role in the use of the computer.
Obtaining this data allowed the researchers to elaborate the hypothesis of whether there is an association between a higher frequency of computer use and a hypothetical better performance in executive functions, comparing individuals who are similar in both basic intellectual abilities and age. , sex, education and health status.
After analyzing the results, and controlling the demographic variables that could interfere in the results, a positive correlation was found between the frequency of computer use and cognitive performance throughout the age range. In addition, in individuals with the same cognitive capacity, a greater use of the computer was associated with a better performance of the executive functions in the alternating test between two tasks. This last effect of better control of executive functions was more pronounced in individuals with lower intellectual capacities and with fewer educational advantages, which meant compensation for their situation.
Concluding, the researchers argue that these results are consistent with those investigations in which it has been found that performing tasks that involve considerable mental activity, can help to maintain cognitive abilities at a good level throughout adulthood.
In light of these facts, the importance of universalizing the use of computers and access to the Internet is considered. Starting from the hypothesis that a really stimulating mental activity is beneficial both for intellectual abilities and to reinforce the cognitive reserve, it can be inferred that promoting these technologies from the authorities would be an investment in the quality of life of citizens.
What neuroscience says about it?
Based on the aforementioned theories about how the practice of mental activities can alter patterns of neuronal activity, Small and his collaborators (2009), from the University of California, decided to investigate how the use of new technologies changes brain structure and function . For this, they had 24 subjects between 55 and 78 years old, who were assigned to two categories.
All the subjects were similar in terms of demographic issues and, depending on the frequency and skill in the use of the computer and the Internet, 12 were included in the group of experts on the Internet and 12 in the group of novices. The tasks performed by both groups were two; On the one hand, they were asked to read a text in book format from which they would be evaluated later. On the other, they were asked to conduct a search on a particular topic, which would also be evaluated later, in a search engine. The subjects on which they should read or perform the search were the same in both conditions. While performing these tasks, the subjects were subjected to a brain scan using the functional magnetic resonance imaging technique, in order to see which areas were activated while carrying out the reading or the search.
During the task of reading text, both novices in the use of the Internet and the experts showed significant activation in the left hemisphere, in the frontal, temporal and parietal regions (angular rotation), as well as in the visual cortex, the hippocampus and the cingulate cortex, that is, areas that are involved in the control of language and visual abilities. The difference was found, as predicted by the hypothesis of the researchers, in the activity during the task of searching for information on the Internet.
Explaining the obtained data
While the same areas were activated in novices when reading text, in the experts, in addition to these areas devoted to reading, the frontal lobe, the right anterior temporal cortex, the posterior cingulate gyrus were significantly activated. and the right and left hippocampus, showing a greater spatial extension of brain activity. These areas in which there was greater activation in the experts control key mental processes to perform searches on the Internet in a correct manner, such as complex reasoning and decision making. These results can be explained by the fact that a search on the Internet does not only require the reading of text, but that one has to interact constantly with the stimuli that are presented.
On the other hand, in research conducted with other types of mental tasks, after a peak of great activation, brain activity tended to decrease as the subject was acquiring skill in the task and it was becoming routine. This, however, does not seem to happen when using the Internet, since in spite of continued practice it is still a truly stimulating task for the brain, measured in brain activity patterns.
Based on their findings in this study, Small and his collaborators believe that, despite the fact that the brain’s sensitivity to new technologies can cause problems of addiction or attention deficit in people with particularly malleable brain (children and adolescents), In general, the use of these technologies will, above all, have positive consequences for the quality of life of the majority. They argue this optimism on the basis that, being a mentally demanding task, they are designed to keep people cognitively awake, that they will exercise their abilities and obtain psychological benefits.
Harmful effects on brain function
But not all are good news. On the other side of the coin are arguments like those of Nicholas Carr (author of the popular article Is Google Making Us Stupid?), Which states that this reorganization of the brain wiring can lead us to develop great difficulties to carry out tasks that require attention sustained, such as, for example, reading long paragraphs of text or staying focused on the same task for a certain period of time.
In his book Surface: What is the Internet doing with our minds ?, referring to the approach proposed in the work of Small, Carr (2010) highlights that “When it comes to neuronal activity, it is a mistake to assume that the more, the better” . Reason that, when processing information, the greater brain activity found in people accustomed to the use of the Internet, is not simply the exercise of our brains, but causes an overload on it.
This overactivation, which does not appear in the reading of books, is due to the continuous excitement of brain areas associated with executive functions while surfing the Web. Although the naked eye can not be seen, the multiple stimuli that are presented to us to our brain to a constant process of decision making; For example, before the perception of a link we must decide in a small fraction of seconds if we will “click” on it or not.
Based on these premises, Nicholas Carr concludes that this modification of our brain function will sacrifice to a certain extent our ability to retain information, which was favored by the methods of calm and attentive reading required by paper texts. In contrast, thanks to the use of the Internet, we will become magnificent and fast detectors and processors of small pieces of information, because … why store so much information in my prehistoric brain if a memory of silicon can do it for me?