Can Searching the Internet Improve Brain Function?

wiseGEEK Writer

For all those folks who claim hours searching the Internet is a waste of time, you may have lost this argument. In studies on Internet searching, particularly one study released in October of 2008, there is significant evidence that suggests searching the Internet may actually improve brain function. There are important limits to this study, which should be taken into account before you start to web surf or commit to yet more hours online.

Medical researchers have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) results to prove that searching the Internet engages the brain more than reading does.
Medical researchers have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) results to prove that searching the Internet engages the brain more than reading does.

First, the study published in October 2008, which Dr. Gary Small of UCLA conducted, evaluated people between the ages of 55 and 76. Researchers do know that it can be harder to improve brain function in this age group because the brain does begin to atrophy and may show a decrease in function as we age. The study did not account for whether searching the Internet would improve brain function in younger groups of people.

The brain's plasticity allows it to change and evolve over the course of a lifetime.
The brain's plasticity allows it to change and evolve over the course of a lifetime.

What Dr. Gary Small and his team of researchers did find, however, is interesting. Participants had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans while either reading or searching the Internet. Both activities showed increased in brain activity, but Internet searching showed greater activity in several different areas of the brain. Searching the Internet tends to engage more of the brain than does reading.

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There was some difference between people who were new to searching the Internet. Those who had previously spent a lot of time online had much higher levels of brain activity, and those with less Internet experience had activity that was almost two-thirds less than Internet-savvy participants. It could be that greater experience with the net could help improve brain function more dramatically as people shed their newbie status.

Since significant brain activity especially that which engages more parts of the brain can improve brain function over time, it’s thought that you really may be able to sharpen your cognitive abilities if you search online. This would, according to Dr. Small’s study, be more helpful than reading. However, if you hate the Internet, there are ways to get some of the same kinds of benefits from offline activity.

Working certain kinds of puzzles, especially math puzzles like Sudoku or crossword and anagram puzzles may provide the same kind of benefits. The disadvantage to these kinds of puzzles is they rely on information you have. You may be able to expand knowledge and improve brain function, if you are also learning new things from trips on the net. There clearly needs to be more research in this area to fully prove Small’s theory, but initial data is encouraging and suggests there can be great benefit for people who are middle aged and older, who want to stay sharp through surfing the net.

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