UCSF study shows how new technology shapes us

According to a recent study from UC San Francisco, new media changes our brains. But this is old news. Historically the emergence of new media has worried the greatest thinkers. Socrates, for example, worried that writing diminished our ability to memorize. And this, in turn, led us to trust and interpret fixed documents rather than engage in dynamic conversation. In his time, Henry David Thoreau was concerned by the proliferation of books. As a result, he only packed a few good ones when he retreated to his cabin at Walden Pond. “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written,” he famously said. MTV, for better or worse, attuned our brains to fast-cutting video.

So it is not surprising that the web has forever changed us. Research shows that our web attention spans are short — we impatiently skim and scan rather than read in depth. One study of experienced web users found that we average about nine seconds on a page.

Cognitive plasticity 1

Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use, ACM Transactions on the Web, Volume 2 Issue 1, February 2008. Credit: Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer

And, we focus on the upper left hand corner of the screen.

Cognitive plasticity 2

Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use, ACM Transactions on the Web, Volume 2 Issue 1, February 2008. Credit: Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer

 

All this data may sound like bad news. But our brains are plastic, and research shows that we are also making cognitive gains. Anyone who has watched a child construct 3-D worlds in Minecraft knows that they are masters at storing mental models of complex structures and navigating through them. There have also been studies showing that video game players are faster at making certain kinds of decisions than non-gamers. I’ll bet basketball point guards, baseball players, and football quarterbacks are great video game players.

A team of researchers led by Adam Gazzaley at UCSF has just published a study showing improved cognitive ability in older people after practicing with a specially designed video game called NeuroRacer.

NeuroRacer

Credit: University of California at San Francisco

Playing the game helped older people multitask by improving their working memory and sustained attention. As their skills increased, so did activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with cognitive control, in a manner that correlated with improvements in sustained-attention tasks. Activity also increased in a neural network linking the prefrontal cortex with the back of the brain.

Gazzaley’s study was published in Nature. You can hear a podcast about it here and see a video summary here. For more along these lines, check out this presentation.

Admittedly, the study is focused on narrow abilities from which it is hard to generalize. But the research is just beginning and we have yet to see how new media will truly change the we way we behave.

Larry Press
Based in Los Angeles, Larry Press is a senior editor at aNewDomain.net and a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills. Email him at [email protected]
Larry Press
Tags: Technology