Your Brain on Google: Interview with Dr. Teena Moody

This is the full transcript from my interview with Dr. Teena Moody from UCLA’s Semel Institute about the Your Brain on Google Study. Today’s Just Behave column on Search Engine Land has more commentary and analysis of the findings.

Gord:

Why don’t we start with the study where you were comparing activation of the brain using Google versus reading text? What was your original hypothesis going into that study?

Dr. Moody:

Well, we were very interested in two ideas. One was how do the patterns of brain activity differ when you’re doing an internet search versus reading, since computers are such a big part of our lives these days? And then we also wanted to look at different groups of people, people who were internet-savvy and had lots of computer exposure and experience, and compared that to naive subjects – with “naive” we mean people who don’t use computers or the internet very often.

Now there are some difficulties in recruiting for this group because so many people have access to computers these days and that was part of our rationale for choosing an older group of participants here, because you find very few 30-year-olds who don’t have computer experience.

Gord:

So for the purpose of this study, what was the definition of “internet-naive”?

Dr. Moody:

A naive person, we were ideally getting someone who had no internet experience, although they could have computer experience. And it turned out we had a self-rating for them – their frequency of computer use, their frequency of internet use, and then a self-rating of their expertise. And it turns out that the net-naive people use the computer usually once or twice a month, and the internet-savvy people several times a day. In terms of the internet, some of them had never actually been on the internet and some maybe used it once a week or once a month for the naives. Again, the savvy people use the internet multiple times a day.

Gord:

Okay.

Dr. Moody:

So we were able to get a very good spread there between the two groups.

Gord:

So what is an fMRI machine? If I was looking at one, what would I be seeing?

Dr. Moody:

Well, it isn’t the same as an MRI machine. It uses, rather than having ionizing energy, you’re using a magnetic field and radio frequency to generate a pattern, and we can look at what’s called the BOLD signal, and that’s the blood oxygenation level dependent signal in the brain, and it is correlated with brain activity. So we’re interested in an fMRI, which is functional MRI, and looking at a pattern of brain activity. And that’s what we were looking at in this study, differences in the pattern of brain activity between savvy subjects and naive subjects, and comparing that when they’re doing internet searches and doing reading…just to see the pattern of activity… if we see different parts of the brain being activated.

Gord:

Okay. So you’re getting them to do different tasks, you’re getting them to read, you’re getting them to actually do online activities. How were the stimuli presented to them, because in an MRI machine, you’re basically in a tube – right? – and you can’t move your head…

Dr. Moody:

Yes. Keeping your head still is very important in an MRI machine. It’s just like if you moved your camera when you’re taking a photo, it will be blurry. So the participants do have to lie in a tube, essentially – they can’t be claustrophobic – and they wear goggles. It’s very much a virtual reality experience. They wear goggles and they have headphones so that we can speak to them and they can speak to us, we hear each other. And before the actual experiment starts, we usually start with a movie to let them become relaxed in the environment and also they’re aware that they are seeing through the goggles. They watch a movie and we take structural images of their brains so that we have references to overlay their functional activity. So usually there are 5 or 10 minutes of structural images where we’re getting detailed information about the structure of each individual’s brain.

Then after that we follow up with the experiment, and it’s very much like playing a videogame. In this case we had a button box where they could press buttons 1, 2, or 3 to indicate their choices for selecting either a book chapter or an internet site. So rather than having a mouse for this first study – we did not have an MRI-compatible mouse – we used a button box for choice of the selection. But it’s very much a virtual reality experience. It would be like playing a videogame, and I use the analogy of, for the button pressing, changing channels on your TV with your remote control. Most of the participants were very comfortable with the situation.

Gord:

Let’s get on to what you found actually in the study. First, I want to start by asking why did you use reading text as the baseline for neural activity in the study as your comparison point?

Dr. Moody:

Well, actually, both for the reading and for the internet and Google searching, we used a different baseline. We had a button-pressing baseline where white bars appeared on the screen and they just pressed the button when a white bar appeared for the location on the screen. And we compared the pattern of activity when they were reading and making… selecting different chapters or when they were selecting Google, from the Google search screen and reading off the internet to that pattern of activity. So our control was more of a low-level control baseline.

Then, in a higher-level analysis, we compared the pattern of activity while they were reading to the pattern of activity while they were doing the internet search. So both tasks had a lower-level baseline control.

Gord:

Okay. So let’s just cover off what you did find. So when you compared the parts of the brain… And we’ll deal first with the internet-naive. When you compared the parts of the brain activated with text reading versus web searching, what did you find?

Dr. Moody:

Well, we found that the pattern of activity was almost identical, and that really frankly surprised me at first because I thought that the internet even for the naive participants would require additional areas, because when you’re searching the internet you are engaging in decision-making, you have to suppress extraneous information, so there’s inhibition required. So I was surprised to find that it looks like in both the internet task and the reading task the subjects are just engaging their language areas, their visual areas, there’s some sensory integration areas as well, but it looks like they’re reading in both cases. And not surprising at all about the areas recruited, because they’re language areas, memory areas, and visual attention areas.

googlebrains

Gord:

But you found something different when you were looking at the internet-savvy group.

Dr. Moody:

That’s correct. And for the internet-savvy group, their reading areas were virtually identical to the reading areas that were activated for the internet-naive participants, but the very interesting part was the savvy group did recruit additional areas and these were frontal areas that had to do with decision-making, cingulate areas that have to do with conflict resolution. It’s not surprising, it’s what we expected, that these additional areas for decision-making would be required and higher-level cognitive function would be required, and that’s what we found in the internet-savvy group.

Gord:

To explore that a little bit, we’re seeing that people are actually cognitively engaging with the results – they have to make decisions, they’re comparing them. What happens there? With the internet-naive, obviously they weren’t engaging with the content nearly at the same level, but the internet-savvy… Is there a certain level of fluency with search where you elevate it to a higher level and you’re using that input to make decisions?

Dr Moody:

Yes, that is certainly one interpretation, and one interpretation that we have for the data – that it does require additional areas and as you practice it, you do become more fluent and more expert at it.

Now there are two different schools of thought on this. One is that when you first learn a task, you require greater activity and more attention, and that one could expect higher levels of activity if you were new at something. People with expertise can actually show decreases in their functional MRI pattern of activity. But what it seems here is that while engaging in internet searching, you are still very actively engaging these decision-making areas and it might be that the naive people are overwhelmed by the situation and are just treating it like a book – you’re still not trying to integrate the information, they’re reading it as though they were reading a book.

There’s one other interpretation as well, and that is that internet-naive people just have a different pattern of wiring in their brains from those who are internet-savvy – people who prefer using the internet and enjoy that mode of reading are wired differently from the internet-naive people. And we can’t distinguish that in this study, but that is also a possibility.

Gord:

Which is interesting. You say they’re wired differently. Would that be the typical, neural  “fire together, wire together” wiring that happens when we learn anything, or is this something more fundamental in the pruning that happens during the formative years?

Dr. Moody:

Well, certainly in development, you know, we have good evidence that things do wire differently depending upon environmental influences, and definitely there’s evidence now against the old theory that adult’s brains don’t change, but definitely after brain injury there’s been evidence of re-wiring or re-mapping brain regions to overcome deficits. We don’t know what’s happening here. This is a very preliminary study, but one interpretation could be that there was a re-wiring, as people practice on the internet that these areas become more active. But all we can really say is that the pattern of activity is different.

Gord:

So one of the things I’ve suspected, when we’ve looked at behaviours in interacting with search, is as you become more used to using search, more comfortable with the interface, you don’t have to worry so much about navigating through the interface, that becomes more like a conditioned, habitual behaviour. Which means your prefrontal cortex is free to kick in to do those cognitive assessments, to say, “Okay, here’s what Option A offers me versus Option B,” so it’s almost kicking it up to a higher level of processing. Does that seem to make sense? It’s like I said, Google has become a habit and at some point the basal ganglia takes over and runs it as a habit which frees up the prefrontal cortex to do more heavy lifting.

Dr Moody:

Well, our data’s definitely consistent with that interpretation, and I think that that’s what part of our interest is, is how can we enrich our lives as we age, how can we improve our cognitive function or slow cognitive decline? And so yes, that’s an interpretation we would like to have because we would like to say, “Oh, we can do something to make our brains better as we age,” so that’s very exciting and interesting, and it is consistent, however we can’t conclude that. We don’t have any causality here at all.

Gord:

One of the really interesting questions, in reading the maps that came out of the study and looking at the areas that seemed to be lighting up, it looked like as memories were being retrieved or concepts were being retrieved, different cortical areas were being activated. Are you seeing that as people are reading text, there’s corresponding visual activation or auditory activation from those cortical areas that are mentally building the images that correspond to what they’re reading in the search results?

Teena:

Well, we definitely see a huge amount of occipital and visual area activation, and that’s just as we expect because for reading and for the internet you’re looking at visual input. And so that was not unexpected at all, that’s exactly what we would expect.

We don’t have… With fMRI, you don’t have very good temporal resolution, so we can’t… And this was a block study as opposed an event-related study, so we can’t really get into what’s happening second to second in the brain here because we average across these big blocks of 20 to 30 seconds. So we can’t say much about the time course and of what’s happening during the reading and internet searching. I’m sure future studies could do that. So we have good information about what happened in these comparisons, but not in the time domain.

Gord:

But there was a note in the study saying that although the visual stimuli were identical, with internet searching there seemed to be enhanced activity in the visual cortex area. Any ideas what might have caused that?

Dr. Moody:

Well, I think the most parsimonious explanation is that they were attending to it more.

Gord:

Right.

Dr. Moody:

So we’ll probably have to go along with that. But it could be that different areas were recruited and additionally were required, but certainly other studies have shown with attention you do recruit these additional areas.

Gord:

Now one of the things that we’ve seen is when people are looking… And it’s hard because in looking at your study, the layout of the results wasn’t a typical Google result, it was kind of pared down and I think there were only three results shown, right?

Dr. Moody:

Yes. I did some pilot testing and I really had to slim it down for a couple of reasons. One is I just looked into the literature to see how many words a person in a certain age group could read in 30 seconds, so I did have to reduce the amount of information on the screen for that reason. Also, presentation of the information in the goggles in the scanner, we wanted to make sure that everyone could actually read the words on the screen. So when you’re looking in the goggles and you’re looking essentially at something… a very, very small computer screen, we had to limit the number of words. So I did pare down what, you know, would normally be on an internet site. Also, in an early pilot version, I included pop-ups like you would get when you’re actually searching the internet, and that was so distracting for people we, you know, immediately took out the pop-ups. The pop-ups were way too distracting for us to be able to make a legitimate comparison of information presentation, comparing a book format versus the internet format.

Gord:

One of the things that might be interesting, when we’ve seen people scanning search results through eye tracking, it’s very obvious when we look at the saccades and the eye movement that they’re scanning, they’re not reading, and we suspect more of a pattern-matching activity. And that would be interesting to see if they’re scanning it visually to look for matches with the query they just used as opposed to actually reading text and engaging those language centres and the translation of that?

Dr Moody:

Yes, but eye tracking would be a great addition to this type of a study. And also once… You know, now there are MRI-compatible mice so that one could actually do more of a click-around within the internet page itself rather than just making a selection of which site to go to. Those would be great additions for the future.

Gord:

I think what I want to talk about a little bit now.. I think this is going a little beyond the scope of this study, but it ties in with some of Dr. Small’s work. I think you’ve worked with him on some of these ideas of the digital native and the digital immigrant. Moving beyond the group you recruited and looking at the young who have been exposed to technology during those formative neural pruning years and what the differences in brain activity might be. What happens when you’re young and you’re exposed to technology at an early age, as opposed to someone like myself who’s 47? The technology I grew up with was basically two channels of television.

Dr. Moody:

Well, I can only comment on this just from personal experience with my children. I haven’t done research on how children interact with the internet. I’ve read some of the papers but I’ve not done any research on that. But it does seem that, you know, they interact more readily and more fluidly. It’s amazing how quickly your kids can navigate across something on the internet compared to how I do. Of course, I’m pretty computer-savvy, I use the computer hours a day. So I think there is a difference between young people and old people.

Recruiting for this study, there were some people… finding people who were internet-naive, we could find them but they really had no interest in learning how to use the computer either. You know, it was very difficult to find naive people who really wanted a chance to participate in a study about the internet. So young people, I think they’ve grown up with it, they accept, you know, MP3 players, cell phones, visual impact touch screens – all that is so natural to them and some of us are still trying to figure out how to program our DVD players.

Gord:

Right. But I guess there’s speculation too that as they become more comfortable with technology and it becomes more of a natural extension of how they communicate, there’s potentially a trade-off there. I mean, the whole concept of pruning is that you get better at what you do all the time and you gradually lose capabilities in the things you don’t do very often. And so might this mean, for instance, that the young are losing the ability for face-to-face communication or more kind of focussed reasoning over a longer period of time.

Dr Moody:

You know, I think that’s a very real concern, and I know that people are looking at some of those issues, attention in particular. The studies that I’ve actually looked at have used computer gaming to enhance visual attention. So we know that you can actually enhance attention using internet gaming practice. But it might be, as you say, that you also have a negative impact for longer periods of attention, like being able to read an entire article versus clicking around and having this immediate visual gratification of changing very quickly. So I’m not aware of the studies that have looked at the negative impact on attention. I’ve actually been looking more on the positive end of how attention has been enhanced and how people are developing computer packages to help children with ADD for instance be able to focus for longer periods of time. But certainly, just it seems that young people have shorter attention spans. I’m not aware of the research, however.

Gord:

So let’s step back within the scope of the study that we were talking about. I’ve got a couple more questions. One is we’ve also seen fairly significant differences in men versus women when they’re doing information foraging basically, when they’re going out and looking for information. Did you notice any differences in this study?

Dr Moody:

You know, unfortunately we had fewer males in this study. Every study you have limitations in terms of funding and timeframe, etc. And so we did try to recruit more males. Some of the males were the ones unfortunately that had head motion during the scan and we weren’t able to keep them in the final results. So we didn’t have enough male participants to make any kind of comparison male-female. And anecdotally, I can’t really say anything different about the two groups.

Gord:

All right. There was actually a post I ran into after I did a preliminary article on this by a cognitive psychologist by the name of Bill Ives and the point he made in this study was that because we saw that as you become more comfortable or learn tasks that you activate more parts of the brain, he said really what the study shows is that once you know what you’re doing, it increases brain function, you generally engage with the content at a greater level. You’re doing this research to find ways to possibly improve cognitive function. What is it that’s most exciting about internet activity as opposed to learning to do any kind of other complex puzzle-solving or mental activity?

Dr. Moody:

Well, I think that because we have a situation where almost everyone has access to a computer, it can make this almost universal. Especially as we age, we’re not getting out there as much to walk around and some people don’t have the ability to go to senior centres and interact with other people, but that you could do something in your own home without requiring great mobility is very exciting. Also, there would be so much choice, there’s so much variety on the internet, it can be individually tailored to your personal preferences. So in this study I tried to pick topics that might be interesting to older adults – you know, walking for exercise, Tai Chi, health aspects of eating different types of food. I think that if it’s enjoyable for someone and if you don’t consider it to be a job to get out there and stimulate your brain, that people will do it more frequently. So that’s part of what’s exciting about it, is that it should be easily accessible to people once they know how to turn on the computer and activate the internet.

Gord:

Okay. So this is an easier path potentially to mental exercise?

Dr. Moody:

I think that it can be, yes.

Gord:

For the purpose of this interview, I’ll wrap up by asking you what’s next? What are the questions you’d like to explore further?

Dr. Moody:

Well, we would like to see what the impact of internet training might be on people who have no internet experience or very little internet experience. So that’s our next direct path. We’d also like to look at interventions for specific groups. If people have memory issues, is there something we could do to improve that? I think Dr. Small, Dr. Brookheimer, and myself are very interested in improving memory and improving people’s lives as we age, so that part of it would be a great bonus if we can discover techniques that might improve memory or enhance cognitive function. So the next step will be to look at training, and then we could look at patient groups, and I personally have interest in developmental learning too and we’ll probably look in young people as well.

Gord:

Okay. Well, fascinating topics to explore. Thank you, Teena, so much for the interview. It was fascinating to walk through it with you.

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