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.

The 150 Millisecond Gap: The Timing of Brand Love

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting room at Simon Fraser University, looking at two squiggly lines on a graph in a Powerpoint slide. In fact, five of us in the room were all looking at it intently. Among the five of us, there was a PhD and a handful of Masters degrees in Neurology and Psychology. I contributed nothing to this impressive collection of academic achievement. Still, there was something on the chart that fascinated me.


The chart was the result of a neuroscanning experiment we conducted with SFU and Isabel Taake and Dr. Mario Liotti last year.  We were exploring how the brain responded to brands we like, brands we don’t like and brands we could care less about. The study was an ERP (Event Related Brain Potential) study. The idea of the study was to divide up the groups, based on brands they buy and brands they don’t buy and measure their brain waves as they’re presented with pictures of the brands with an EEG scanner. After, these waves were averaged and the averages of each group were compared with each other. What we were looking for were differences between the waves. We were looking for gaps.

It turned out we found two gaps. The brain waves are measured based on time, in millisecond increments. When we initially did the study, we were looking for something called the DM effect. This effect has been shown to represent a difference in how we encode memories and how effective we are in retrieving them later. We wanted to see if well liked brands showed different levels of brain activity when it came to memory encoding than neutral or disliked brands. The answer, as it turned out, was a qualified yes. What was most interesting, however, was the difference in the brain waves we saw when people were presented pictures of  brands they love and brands they either dislike or  feel ambivalent about. There was something going on here, and it was happening in two places. The first was happening very quickly, literally in the blink of an eye. We found our first gap right around 150 milliseconds – in just over 1/10th of a second. The second gap was a little later, at about 450 milliseconds, or about half a second.

Brands = Faces?

Previous ERP work often used faces as the visual stimuli that subjects were presented with. Researchers like working with faces because the human brain is so well attuned to responding to faces. As a stimuli, they provide plenty of signal with little noise. What researchers found is that there were significant differences in how our brains processes well known faces and unknown faces. They also found differences in how we processed smiling faces and scowling faces. And the differences in processing showed up in two places, one in the 150 millisecond range and the second at about 300 – 500 milliseconds. The first gap is what neurologists call the Vertex Positive Potential. The second is called the P300. I’ll explain what each of these means in more depth in a second.

What was interesting with this study is that we were seeing the same  thing play out when we substituted familiar brands for familiar faces. Respondents were responding to brands they liked the same way they would respond to a friendly face they recognized. So, what’s the big deal about that? And why two gaps? What was the significance of the 300 milliseconds that separate the two? Well, it’s the difference between gut instinct and rational thought. What we might have been seeing, as we stared at the projector screen, was two very different parts of the brain processing the same thought, with the first setting up the second.

The Quick Loop and the Slow Loop

Neurologists, including Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio, have found that as we live our lives, our brains can respond to certain people, things and situations in two different ways.

The first is the quick and dirty loop. This expressway in our brain literally rips through the ancient, more primal part of our brain – what has popularly been called the Lizard brain (neurologists and psychologists hate this term, by the way). Why? Because if we hesitate in dangerous situations, we’re dead. So, we have a hair trigger response mechanism that alerts us to danger in a blink of an eye. How quick is this response? Well, coincidentally, it’s usually measured in the 100 to 200 millisecond range. This is the VPP, the Vertex Positive Potential. It’s an emotional processing of a stimulus, an immediate assessment of threat or reward.

Previous research (Jeffreys Takumachi 1992) found that the VPP is common when we see faces but could also be found when we looked at some objects.  Some, but not all objects. What we (and by we, I mean Isabel and Dr. Liotti) did was substitute preferred and non-preferred brands for faces. And we saw the same VPP gap. Typically, this early processing is done by the amygdala (our danger detection module) and other areas of the brain including the orbitofrontal cortex.  If you look at the map of neural activity, you’ll find more frontal activity in the “Buy” group. The brain is responding emotionally to what it is seeing and it’s doing so almost instantaneously, in the blink of an eye.


But then there’s a slower loop that feeds the signal up to our prefrontal cortex, where there’s a more deliberate processing of the signal. If the signal turns out to be non threatening, the brain damps down the alarms and returns the brain to it’s pre-alert status. Cooler heads prevail, quite literally. The time for this more circuitous path? About half a second, give or take a few milliseconds. This more deliberate evaluation represents the second gap, the P300 gap, we saw in our averaged brain waves. This is a more deliberate evaluation of the stimulus. It’s here where our reasoning brains kick in and either contradict or reinforce the early signals of the VPP gap. If it’s a smiling face, we go beyond instant recognition and start to retrieve (from memory) our concept of the person behind the face. The same is true, I suspect, for our favorite brands. The neural map here shows the difference in scalp potential activity between the “Buy” group and the “Non-Buy” group. The heat we see is the home of brand love.


Where Brand Love Lives

In neurological research, different methods deliver different insights. The ERP methodology we used provides accurate timing, thus the discovery of the 150 and 450 ms gaps. But fMRI scanning provides accurate tracking of the exact locations of neural activity. Another study, conducted in 2004, starts to give us some clues as to exactly where brand love lives. Dr. Read Montague and a team at Baylor University staged a rather elaborate repeat of the Coke-Pepsi Challenge, but this time, people took the challenge while they were in a fMRI scanner. I’ve written before about the study if you’re interested in more detail about how they pulled it off.  Today, what I want to talk about is where in the brain brand love lives.

Coke is one of the most beloved brands in the world. It elicits strong loyalty amongst its fans, to the point where they swear it tastes much better than it’s rival – Pepsi. Well, as Montague found, if they didn’t know what they’re drinking, this isn’t really true. Even the most fervent Coke fan often choose Pepsi as their preferred drink when they didn’t know what they were drinking. But when they knew the brand they were tasting, something very interesting happened. Suddenly, other parts of the Coke fan’s brain started lighting up.


The hippocampus, the left parahippocampal cortex, the midbrain and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex started lighting up. This is significant because it indicates that the brain was actually retrieving concepts and beliefs from memory (the hippocampal activity) and the retrieved concepts were being integrated into feelings of reward (the prefrontal cortical activity). The brain was enhancing the physical sensation of taste with the full strength of brand love.


Perhaps we’re starting to see not only the home of brand love, but also the timing. This was why I fixated on that small gap between the squiggly lines at 150 milliseconds. It’s because this represented our immediate, visceral response to brands. Before the brain really kicks in at all, we are already passing judgement on brands. And this judgement will color everything that comes after it. It sets the stage for our subsequent brand evaluations, happening at the 450 ms gap. This is when the brain structures identified in the Baylor study start to kick in and reinforce that “blink of an eye” first impression. Brands appear to deliver a one-two punch.

We’re currently planning our follow up research for 2010. I’m not exactly sure what it will entail, but you can bet we’ll be looking much closer at those 150 and 450 ms gaps!

The Meeting of the Mind and Marketing: 11 Books to Read

First published October 15, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s official! With this column, I break David Berkowitz’s Search Insider column count record, with 225 of my own. And to commemorate the occasion, I wanted to follow up on a request that came in response to my column two weeks ago. I had warned any would-be students of human nature that this wasn’t a quest to be taken lightly. A few readers responded by asking for a recommended reading list.

So this week, I went through my bookshelf at home and jotted down a list of titles that I found particularly insightful or interesting in understanding the human condition. Today, I offer them as suggestions for some fall or winter reading. I came up with 22 titles, so I’ve broken them into two groups. This week, all the titles are specifically for those who want to explore the intersection between marketing and the way our minds work.“How Customers Think” — Gerald Zaltman. Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman has carved out a nice little career by exploring the psychology of consumerism. The foundation of Zaltman’s approach is his metaphor elicitation technique. Metaphors are linguistic keys to some of the darker workings of our mind, and Zaltman shows how these can be used as a Rosetta stone to unlock consumers’ true feelings towards brands and products. A fascinating approach suffers a little from Zaltman’s dry and overly academic writing style, but it’s a very worthy candidate for the list.

“The Culture Code” — Clotaire Rapaille. If Zaltman is a little stodgy and academic, Rapaille is an unabashed French nouveau-riche pop psychologist who has used his decidedly qualitative approach to dig down to the cultural common denominators behind our brand relationships. This book looks for those labels cultures apply to some of the best-known brands in the world. Being French, Rapaille brings an occasionally charming European cultural arrogance to his subject (i.e. in France, the culture code for cheese is “alive”, but in the U.S. it’s “dead”). This is  an easy and interesting read; while you might have some quibbles with Rapaille’s findings, he has plenty of willing customers among the Fortune 500.

“Buy-ology” — Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom’s ego is almost matched by the insight he brings in his latest book. Lindstrom is the self-styled guru of brand perception and has written before on how our senses interpret brands. In “Buy-ology,” he goes one step further and launches an extensive brain scanning research project to see exactly what happens in our brains when we think about brands. For example, do the warning labels on a pack of cigarettes have any impact on our desire for a smoke? Does product placement really work? (The answer, in both cases, is no, according to Lindstrom) Don’t worry about getting caught in academic jargon here. Lindstrom keeps it light and readable.

“Why Choose This Book?” — Read Montague. Baylor University neurologist Montague was behind the original Pepsi Challenge fMRI test — and in this book, he takes on no less a challenge than explaining how we make decisions. The writing style’s a little uneven, as Montague tries to balance his academic background with a style overly determined to appeal to a wider audience. That said, Montague knows his stuff and the insights here are solid, supported by both his own and others’ research.

“Predictably Irrational” — Dan Ariely.  Ariely follows in the footsteps of behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky by looking at some of the common irrational biases of humans. For example, why does a 50-cent aspirin eliminate a headache better than a 5-cent generic brand, even though the pills are identical? And why would offering your mother-in-law $300 for a fabulous meal be an unforgivable social transgression, yet be expected in a restaurant? The territory has been covered before, but Ariely deals with a highly interesting topic with a nice, light touch.

“The Mind of the Market” — Michael Shermer. Last but not least, Michael Shermer delivers what I consider to be a tour-de-force on this topic. Shermer’s approach is well-grounded in evolutionary psychology (he labels it evolutionary economics), so he and I share a common approach to understanding consumer behavior. He strikes the right balance in his writing, delivering solid information without worrying too much about how it might play for a wider audience. This is probably my favorite on this list.

If these six titles whet your appetite, here are some other titles you might consider:

“Driven” by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria

“Why We Buy” by Paco Underhill

“The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz

“The Advertised Mind” by Erik Du Plessis

“Brain Rules’ by John Medina

Next week I’ll share another 11 books, as well as some reader suggestions. Feel free to keep the suggestions coming!

The Prerequisites for Being a Student of Human Nature

First published October 1, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week I asked for input on the upcoming Search Insider Summit. Of the seven possible topic areas I presented, the highest level of interest was in the role of human behavior in digital marketing. You, the Search Insider faithful, have made me very happy. But being an avid student of human nature, I feel it’s only fair to warn you what to expect as you continue down this path.  Some years ago, I too was intrigued by human behavior and thought it would be interesting to “learn a little bit more.” But learning about human nature is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. Think of it as having a baby. The first few minutes of the process might be fun, but soon you learn you’ve just signed on for a lifetime commitment. You’d better make sure you’re ready.

The True Meaning of Customer-Centricity

I’ve been criticized in the past for using the term “customer-centric” (the practical application of studying human nature), but I suspect it’s because the term has lost its original meaning as it’s been adopted into the lexicon of “Dilbert-speak.” Customer-centric is one of those terms bandied about in board meetings and corporate retreats, along with “synergistic” and “holistic.”

But customer-centricity represents much more than a quick paragraph in the annual report. It’s the core you build a company around. It’s a commitment that lays the foundation for everything an organization does: the people it hires, the way it develops products, the way it formulates business processes, the way it markets and even the way who sits beside whom in the office gets decided. Customer-centricity is a religion, not a corporate fad.

There Aren’t Any Shortcuts

As I found out, if you are going to commit to learning more about human behavior in the goal of becoming a better marketer, don’t be surprised when you discover that this commitment can’t be met in a one-hour session or by reading a book. Humans are a lot more complex than that. There’s a lot of weird and wonderfully quirky machinery jammed in our skulls.

I was humbled to learn that people devote their entire lives to exploring just one tiny part of why we humans do what we do. Joseph LeDoux, one of the world’s foremost neuroscientists, has spent years exploring how fear is triggered in rats. Ann Graybiel  at MIT has made a similar commitment to exploring the role of the basal ganglia in how habits form and play out.  Antonio Damasio’s  extensive work with patients with pre-frontal cortical lesions led to his somatic marker theory, foundational insight into the area of human behavior Malcolm Gladwell explored and popularized in his book “Blink.” These are all tiny little pieces in the overall puzzle that is human behavior, yet each of these is integral in understanding how we respond to marketing messages.

Beyond the Cocktail Party Quip

Today, several years after I started down this road, I hope people find my insights on human behavior interesting. There’s that brief light bulb moment that happens when “what” is matched with a plausible “why” — when a psychological or neurological trigger for a puzzling human trait is identified.  “Hmm – that’s really interesting,” is the common response, and then it’s on to the next thing (possibly mumbling something about me being a “pedantic bore”). Yes, it is really interesting, but it wasn’t a quick or easy path to get here.

Sometime ago I decided a quick primer in human behavior would be interesting. I started with the more accessible books (such as Gladwell’s) and was instantly hooked. I next moved to books by academics doing the actual research that provided the fodder for Gladwell and other’s popularizations: LeDoux, Damasio, Edelman, Rose, Pinker, Chomsky and others.  Before I knew it, I was wading through academic papers. Today, the bookshelf in my home office is packed with fairly hefty tomes on everything from evolutionary psychology to the social patterns of the 20th Century. My wife and kids can’t remember the last time I read a book that didn’t have a brain on the cover.

I share this as a warning. I discovered developing even a basic understanding of human behavior is at least a multiyear commitment. I’ve never regretted it, but I also know that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. But here’s what I also discovered along the way. Even a basic understanding will give you a whole new perspective on pretty much everything, including marketing. The one common denominator in all marketing is that it’s aimed at people. If you’re ready to start the journey, I’m sure you won’t regret it.

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.


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.


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.



Dr. Moody:

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


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Dr. Moody:

I think that it can be, yes.


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.


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