According to researchers in California, using the Internet is good for the brain – particularly if you are middle aged. The research, due to be published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, looked at the brains of people aged between 55 and 76 to see what impact surfing the web had. They compared the results with reading books.
Interestingly, the research also looked at brain activity in two kinds of volunteers – those who were experienced web users and those who were novices. According to the researchers, experienced web users showed a much greater level of brain activity than either web novices or when reading books. Geriatric specialists are pouncing on this research saying that Internet use is therefore good – there’s tons of research which shows the brain is a “use it or lose it” system. Stimulating the brain has been shown to help prevent age-related memory loss, for instance.
But does this research really show what it suggests? There’s little doubt that this research shows an increase in neural activity – but it’s the interpretation of what all that electrical activity means. The researchers claim that the experienced users of the Internet tend to use much more of the “decision making” regions of the brain.
Clearly, you don’t need to make so many decisions when reading a book. So why are the web novices not making more decisions than the experienced Internet users? That’s the conundrum. Surely, experienced users would need to make less decisions – but the research shows they are making more – or at least using the centres of the brain associated with decisions much more.
What this research probably shows is how badly organised and designed the vast majority of the web has become. It is a disorganised shambles. Few web sites follow the same protocols, there is an ethos that different is better and the result is that those of us who use the Internet day-in, day-out have to wade through endless decisions as to where to click and what to look at next.
In contrast, the new user reads the web like a book; they don’t bother looking all over the place or getting distracted by all the possibilities – they aren’t aware of them and hence they don’t consider them. As a result their brain does less work.
Now, from a physiological point of view that might be bad – using more of their brain would be good for them. But what this research actually shows is that the vast majority of web sites have lost the simplicity of the book, which allows our brain to work less, tire less and get more absorbed. This research really confirms that it’s time to redesign many web sites – fewer choices, fewer decisions to be made and greater simplicity. It will help engagement with your audience – they will just have to do crossword puzzles to get their brain cells moving…!
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+