As people’s lives are becoming increasingly immersed in technology, questions arise about the impact this might be having on us – both physiologically and socially. The Nominet Trust is exploring how digital technologies are impacting on human wellbeing. As part of this process, Dr Paul Howard-Jones, an expert in neuroscience and education, was invited to review the research in the internet’s impact on the human brain. He presented a summary of his findings at the RSA this week.
A review of the evidence
What exactly is the truth behind such headlines as ‘Facebook and Bebo risk infantilising the human mind’? Howard-Jones reviewed 178 studies across a range of subjects in an attempt to ascertain the science behind such popular concepts of the impact of the internet.
Howard-Jones describes a study that monitored the brain activity of people using an internet search engine that seemed to show that different parts of the brain were activated when compared to reading. However, it seems more likely that the users – particularly those less experienced online searchers – were simply learning new tasks which involved other parts of the brain. In fact, the human brain is not actually as ‘hard-wired’ as many of us might suspect and any brain may be ‘changed’ by any learning experience. But in Howard-Jones’ words, ‘some brains are more plastic than others’ – the brains of children. So it is the use of the internet by children and young people that causes concern for many people.
The latest evidence suggests that online social networks actually stimulate connectness and support existing friendships rather than encouraging isolation in young people. It is also true that where problems exist digitally, they would probably exist elsewhere. Young victims of cyberbullying for example are likely to have been victims offline. There is little evidence to show that networking, or other types of online communication, are in themselves a source of special risk.
One of the other questions that the review covers is whether or not the internet can be an addiction. Howard-Jones’ view is that anything is problematic if it is difficult to control, or interfering with normal daily life. Common sense and moderation must be applied to internet usage and the concept of digital ‘hygiene’ – for parents, teachers and others – should be explored and developed.
Brain training – what works and what doesn’t
There is no evidence that commercial brain training has transferable everyday applications (but rather users simply get better at the brain training itself). However, there IS evidence to show that working memory can be trained. When young adults undertook a 19-day computer based training program that focused on developing working memory for 30 minutes a day, it was found that not only had their working memory improved. The training also developed what is known as ‘fluid (tranferable) intelligence’ – they had developed their ability to solve problems in new situations.
Neuroscience research can provide some insight into why computer games are so engaging. Studies have suggested that mid-brain dopamine is released during gaming – and more frequently than in ‘real life’. But there is no concensus as to how and when to diagnose ‘problematic’ or excessive gaming as an addiction. It’s not all bad as far as mid-brain dopamine is concerned – it is also associated with the ability to store and recall information.
There is also evidence to show that gaming improves visual perceptual and motor skills. Gamers may have enhanced visual attention capacity, superior spatial awareness and improved temporal processing of visual information. Gaming enhances the learning process.
The report, which is available to download from the Nominet Trust website, also considers the effects of digital technology on sleep patterns, attention problems, multi-tasking and affective responses. The research has helped to highlight where there are gaps in the research literature. There is still a lot of work to be done in this field.
However, what is certain is that gaming in particular can be used to improve learning, and to engage with audiences in new ways. It seems likely that ‘gamification’ will continue to grow.