CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - The Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.
Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specializes in brain function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.
But while technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity it can have drawbacks as it can create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.
Small, however, argues that the people who will come out on top in the next generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills.
"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills," Small told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"They will know when the best response to an email or Instant Message is to talk rather than sit and continue to email."
In his newly released fourth book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," Small looks at how technology has altered the way young minds develop, function and interpret information.
Small, the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA, said the brain was very sensitive to the changes in the environment such as those brought by technology.
He said a study of 24 adults as they used the Web found that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.
"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others," said Small.
"We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."
Small said this multi-tasking could cause problems.
He said the tech-savvy generation, whom he calls "digital natives," are always scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even damage neural networks.
"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.
"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control of it."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)