Neuroimaging shows e-devices may hamper understanding of complex concepts

A recent fMRI-based study found that learning via electronic devices such as smartphones or tablets can inhibit the brain’s ability to understand scientific texts.

In the study, detailed in Scientific Reports, researchers tracked the eye movements of 51 participants while they read five scientific articles inside an MRI scanner. Across all varieties of text, the team found a negative correlation between the self-reported frequency of device usage and activity in brain regions central to information processing.

“In this case, if people use electronic devices excessively on a daily basis, that could possibly impair their ability to acquire hierarchical order — or structure — of scientific concepts,” said co-author Ping Li, with Penn State’s Institute for CyberScience, in a news release.

Articles in a science textbook—like those used in this study—typically use inter-connected information, the authors noted, which requires readers link information from one part of the text to information found in another to comprehend complex concepts. In this study, the brain areas important to processing such information—the left insula and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG)—were not generating the brain power needed to absorb these inter-connected concepts.

“For example, we know that the IFG is very important for language understanding, for understanding semantics, or the meaning of words and grammar, and we see that this area becomes less active among people who use more electronic devices,” Li added. “The insula is an area involved in cognitive tasks like attention switching. So, let’s say you’re daydreaming while you’re reading a text and then a teacher suddenly tells you to pay attention to a certain part of the text, that’s when you are switching attention.”

Despite these results, Li cautioned there is no “causation,” but simply a correlation between these brain areas and excess electronic usage.”

“Our work may have implications for education,” said Li. “Our goal was to look for a neural basis for reading comprehension. Middle school, for example, is a time when kids are starting to read about science — very basic information in the STEM fields. Right now, we have very little knowledge about how a middle school student’s brain is responding when they are trying to understand these very basic scientific concepts.”