Dr. Gary Small, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry and aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Dr. Small, one the nations top brain health experts, frequently appears on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and The Dr. Oz Show. He is co-author with his wife Gigi Vorgan of many popular books, including The New York Times best-seller, The Memory Bible, and The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. He is author of The Mind Health Report newsletter.

Dr. Gary Small, M.D.

Online Social Connections Strengthen the Brain

Tuesday, 07 Jan 2014 03:39 PM

By Dr. Small

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A technique called neuroimaging has shown how the brain reacts to stimuli from moment to moment. It also shows that when a particular mental stimulation becomes repetitive, the neural circuits controlling the experience strengthen — while other brain circuits weaken.
For example, when we teach memory techniques to research volunteers, their neural circuits become more active. Eventually, their brains become more efficient at the tasks, and we see less neural activity in the volunteers’ brain scans. They’re still able to accomplish the mental task; they just use less energy to do it.
Now let’s apply these findings to some common tech-heavy activities. For instance, many individuals (especially younger people) spend hours each day playing video games. As a result, their brains’ neural circuitry for controlling gaming strengthens. But there may be a cost, such as a weakening of neural circuits that control face-to-face human contact skills.
A few years ago, I became concerned that my 14-year-old son was spending too much time playing his video games. I couldn’t stand hearing the bings and bells from that same video game for another moment, so I shouted out to him, “Harry, I want you to turn off that video game, come downstairs, and watch TV with me.”
Of course, I realized that I was merely shifting him from one form of technology to another, but I figured that if the two of us watched television together — especially educational TV — we could have conversations about the program, which would improve his face-to-face conversation skills.
And it worked, to a certain extent. What I didn’t realize until later was that there was actually a social dimension to what Harry had been doing. That’s because the video game he  was playing was connected with a group of online friends, so he was actually having conversations and interactions with the other players.
Human beings evolved as social animals. Prehistoric people that were able to get along with each other had an advantage over less social ones, and were therefore more likely to survive. Even today, socially connected individuals have lower rates of depression, longer life expectancy, and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s dementia later in life.
A recent study found that a stimulating 10-minute conversation resulted in better short- term memory abilities. Researchers believe that the interactive aspects of conversation do more to stimulate brain cells, providing mental exercise that strengthens and possibly even protects our neurons.
Digital gadgets also offer many opportunities to stay connected socially. We find out what’s new with friends, plan events, and tell others what is happening in our lives — all without having to fight through traffic to meet in person.

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