Wired for Information: A Brain Built to Google

First published August 26, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In my last Search Insider, I took you on a neurological tour that gave us a glimpse into how our brains are built to read. Today, let’s dig deeper into how our brains guide us through an online hunt for information.

Brain Scans and Searching

First, a recap. In Nicholas Carr’s Book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains,I focused on one passage — and one concept — in particular. It’s likely that our brains have built a short cut for reading. The normal translation from a printed word to a concept usually requires multiple mental steps. But because we read so much, and run across some words frequently, it’s probable that our brains have built short cuts to help us recognize those words simply by their shape in mere milliseconds, instantly connecting us with the relevant concept. So, let’s hold that thought for a moment

The Semel Institute at UCLA recently did a neuroscanning study that monitored what parts of the brain lit up during the act of using a search engine online. What the institute found was that when we become comfortable with the act of searching, our brains become more active. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, the language centers and the visual cortex all “light up” during the act of searching, as well as some sub-cortical areas.

It’s the latter of these that indicates the brain may be using “pre-wired” short cuts to directly connect words and concepts. It’s these sub-cortical areas, including the basal ganglia and the hippocampus, where we keep our neural “short cuts.”  They form the auto-pilot of the brain.

Our Brain’s “Waldo” Search Party

Now, let’s look at another study that may give us another piece of the puzzle in helping us understand how our brain orchestrates the act of searching online.

Dr. Robert Desimone at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT found that when we look for something specific, we “picture” it in our mind’s eye. This internal visualization in effect “wakes up” our brain and creates a synchronized alarm circuit: a group of neurons that hold the image so that we can instantly recognize it, even in complex surroundings. Think of a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle. Our brain creates a mental image of Waldo, activating a “search party” of Waldo neurons that synchronize their activities, sharpening our ability to pick out Waldo in the picture. The synchronization of neural activity allows these neurons to zero in on one aspect of the picture, in effect making it stand out from the surrounding detail

Pirolli’s Information Foraging

One last academic reference, and then we’ll bring the pieces together. Peter Pirolli, from Xerox’s PARC, believes we “forage” for information, using the same inherent mechanisms we would use to search for food. So, we hunt for the “scent” of our quarry, but in this case, rather than the smell of food, it’s more likely that we lodge the concept of our objective in our heads. And depending on what that concept is, our brains recruit the relevant neurons to help us pick out the right “scent” quickly from its surroundings.  If our quarry is something visual, like a person or thing, we probably picture it. But if our brain believes we’ll be hunting in a text-heavy environment, we would probably picture the word instead. This is the way the brain primes us for information foraging.

The Googling Brain

This starts to paint a fascinating and complex picture of what our brain might be doing as we use a search engine. First, our brain determines our quarry and starts sending “top down” directives so we can very quickly identify it.  Our visual cortex helps us by literally painting a picture of what we might be looking for. If it’s a word, our brain becomes sensitized to the shape of the word, helping us recognize it instantly without the heavy lifting of lingual interpretation.

Thus primed, we start to scan the search results. This is not reading, this is scanning our environment in mere milliseconds, looking for scent that may lead the way to our prey. If you’ve ever looked at a real-time eye-tracking session with a search engine, this is exactly the behavior you’d be seeing.

When we bring all the pieces together, we realize how instantaneous, primal and intuitive this online foraging is. The slow and rational brain only enters the picture as an afterthought.

Googling is done by instinct. Our eyes and brain are connected by a short cut in which decisions are made subconsciously and within milliseconds. This is the forum in which online success is made or missed.

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