Is the internet changing our brains?

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.

Information gathering

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.

Social networking

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.

Addictive behaviour?

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.


A ‘new’ model for ebooks

If Amazon’s Kindle device (other devices are available!) is ‘the iTunes for ebooks’ then what is the Spotify equivalent? (Spotify provides free and fee music streaming to users in a number of European countries).

This week, the Spanish initiative 24symbols has announced it is to offer on-demand access to a library of popular ebooks in a model similar to that of music streaming.  Integration with Facebook provides a social element to the service.

You can read more about 24symbols, including a review of its current, beta format on

Wikipedia – spread the love

Wikipedia has announced it is testing a new way of sharing accolades for content.

In a blog post, the organisation outlines how important positive feedback is to contributors and editors.  78% of contributors stated that they are more likely to contribute in the future if others are complimentary about their efforts.

Wikipedia calls the ‘Wikilove’ initiative ‘an experiment in appreciation’.  It simplifies the feedback process and enables users to send barnstars or other (even customised) symbols of appreciation.


European travel – how the other half lives

If you have plans to travel in Europe this year, this blog post by Matthew Stibbe (Europe’s most luxurious airport lounges) is either going to prove helpful and informative or just make you seethe.

Treats for the well-heeled traveller include Rioja tasting, private dining, views of the Alps, luxury car rides to the plane.  And a cigar lounge (Frankfurt in case you were wondering).

Three cheers, then, for Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow who offer facilities that actually sound modern, relevant and fun.  Hydro pools, billiards, games room for children and – best of all of course – a library!

The gamification of recruitment

Gamification continues to make its presence felt in the world of work.

The hotel chain Marriott International has launched a Facebook game that gives players the opportunity to ‘work’ in various hotel roles.   You can start by working in the hotel kitchens and gain points for excellent customer service and profitability.  The app is available in five languages and aims to raise awareness amongst ‘millennials’ to job opportunties around the world.

Conducting a Twitter audit

We all know how important it is to measure the impact of our professional activities.  Chris Brogan’s article on how to conduct a Twitter audit shares simple, valuable advice – the number of comments, tweets and Facebook mentions shows that many others found it valuable too.

Twitter is a conversational tool not a broadcasting channel.  Looking at your most recent 20 Tweets, count how many were @replies (conversational) and how many were broadcasting/marketing yourself.

Most importantly of all, now is the time to create a plan for your Twitter account – exactly what is its purpose, and how will you measure its effectiveness?




Facing up to the cybersecurity challenge

In the latest issue of McKinsey Quarterly James Kaplan identifies a perfect storm of factors that are conspiring to make cybersecurity a major business challenge.

  • Stakeholders expect more ‘openness’.  Increased demands for mobile/smartphone access present new types of security threats
  • More corporate value is to be found online – making it a more attractive target for cybercriminals
  • Interconnected supply chains making extended networks vulnerable to weak links in the chain
  • Increasingly sophisticated cybercriminals and malware

Organisations need a new mindset to tackle cybersecurity challenges. This includes moving from a focus of ‘protecting the perimeter’ to identifying, and protecting, their most valuable intellectual assets.  Most critical of all is to acknowledge that cybersecurity is at best a constant battle rather than a one-off problem that can be tackled and ‘solved’.



International usability and website design

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen shares the findings of usability studies conducted in Australia, China and the UAE.  The tests covered websites, intranets and mobile apps/sites.  His key findings and recommendations include:

  • Headlines and links are REALLY important.  Irrespective of the ‘direction’ of reading (left to right languages/ or right to left), all users focus attention on the first few words.  Interest quickly wanes.
  • Multilingual search is ideal. At the very least make allowances for both British and US English.  Be kind to poor spellers.
  • Everyone needs an internationalised site.  But be aware of local differences.  Australian users favoured a domain.  Arab users were more likely to trust international sites.  Localised sites can be used to target specific, important, regional markets.


What next for training and learning?

CILIP, the UK-based professional body for library and information professionals, has announced the suspension of its public access training programme.

These are difficult economic times, and information roles in all sectors are under threat.  Organisations in straitened circumstances have to make difficult decisions and it is unhappily true that staff development is very often considered a ‘nice to have’ rather than critical to organisational success.  CILIP had to make a pragmatic decision based on the fact that not enough people were booking training courses.

In a more positive light, a key thread of the LinkedIn discussions initiated by the announcement is the key role played by CILIP’s 27 Special Interest Groups (SIGs) in providing at cost/low cost training and professional support.   These events can often be developed and delivered quickly as a direct response to the needs of members.

‘Informal’ or networked learning and training will almost certainly become more important to the profession.  We have already witnessed the development of librarians’ TeachMeets; the attendance of conferences ‘by proxy’; keeping up-to date and challenged via trusted Twitterfeeds and blogs; the development of ‘unconferences’ (self organised gatherings with no structured programming.  The truth of the matter is that we will need to manage our own professional development even more proactively, and do so very often with a zero budget.

CILIP meanwhile will continue to deliver in-house training and, of course, national conferences.  The discussions about the role of CILIP in providing professional development will no doubt continue in Hatfield in July!




The information profession – fragmented or diverse?

The defragmentation debate began when Mark Field first expressed his heartfelt concern about the state of ‘the information professions’.

The key question he posed was this – why, despite the fact that we are living in the ‘information/ knowledge/ internet age’, do the information professions continue to lack influence within government and business?  And, by extension, what can we do about it?  His initial posting created quite a stir.

This debate about the information professions, and the role of the professional bodies that support them, continued this week at the first ‘open’ (and oversubscribed) defragmentation meeting, held at the headquarters of the British Computer Society in London.  At round tables a series of key questions were discussed, including some fundamentals  – what exactly are the information professions and what is their value to society?  Has our profession fragmented because it lost sight of its true ‘core competences’ or is it simply a broad and diverse church?

During a plenary session, attempts were made to identify some practical next steps (and willing volunteers!).   These actions focus on improving advocacy and demonstrating value.

Several professional bodies and networking groups have been involved in the debate, including Cilip, NetIKX and the BCS.  Is there are need for a new, umbrella organisation that can work to improve the fortunes of the profession for the benefit of society or can a ‘sexy commune’ of the bodies be created through better collaboration?

James Mullan and Nicola Franklin have blogged about the event and the ‘defrag wiki’ has more information on the debate and possible ways forward.