People who have never used the Internet before get a significant brain boost once they start going online. New research from UCLA shows that Internet “newbies” have dramatic increases in brain activity bringing them up to the levels seen in Internet “savvy” people – all in the space of a week. This is the first evidence that online activity actually boost your brain.
The research shows, in particular, that the brain’s areas of decision-making and reasoning are the ones that get most of the impact as a result of going online. Volunteers were tested using brain scanning equipment as they used the web. Those individuals who had never used the Internet before achieved the same patterns in the brain scans as those seen in regular Internet users after just a week of Internet use.
What’s important to note is that prior to the use of the Internet, the brain scans of the “newbies” showed less brain activity in the decision-making areas or the reasoning region. This suggests that for many people, daily life doesn’t need as much complex reasoning or decision-making as is needed online.
Of course, even though this study shows that using the Internet is beneficial to your brain, it also suggests an alternative viewpoint. The fact is that prior to use of the Internet, the “newbies” got along just fine with the world without having to get their brains to go into overdrive. Now, once they have come online, they need to engage those decision-making areas and the complex reasoning parts of the brain much more than ever before.
Now, whilst they can do this – and seem to benefit from it – it does suggest that the whole way we arrange things on web pages is too complex. If we are asking our users to get more of their brain going, simply to use a website, then we are probably doing it wrong. And almost certainly we are.
Even though, broadly speaking, most websites have top or left-based navigation, none of them look the same very much. Each time we see a menu, we have to review what it does compared with the last web page menu we saw. In the real world, we don’t have to do that. You get in any car you like, big, small, petrol or diesel, you’ll know exactly what that wheel in front of you is for, without really looking at it. Yet, in every car they are different; the similarities are greater though. Car designers don’t ask too much of us in terms of refamiliarising ourselves with our environment. Web designers do.
In newspapers, too, the headlines may all be different, but they are generally in the same place, roughly the same size as the competing newspaper’s and generally next to a picture. Newspaper designers all follow the same broad set of design rules so that we don’t have to refamiliarise ourselves with each and every newspaper we pick up. Yet that’s what many web designers are asking us to do by using such a wide variety of layouts and systems.
One of the reasons for the popularity of blogging software, such as WordPress, could well be due to the fact that in spite of some minor thematic changes, many WordPress blogs look like other WordPress blogs. When we engage with them we don’t have to think too hard to find our way around.
The dramatic increase in the brain activity upon the onset of Internet use could well be down to the variety of design, the prevalence of non-standard systems and the constant need to refamiliarise ourselves with navigation systems. The result is our brain needs to do more complex reasoning and more decision making.
This new study may well hold out hope for people who are worried that their aging brain may go into hibernation without some kind of stimulation. But it also is something of an indictment of the mess we have all helped to create online.
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+