Prof. Li Ping was recently appointed as the new Dean of Humanities at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Along with his position, Prof. Li is also a Chair Professor of Neurolinguistics and Bilingual Studies. He is an internationally renowned scholar and his research aims at understanding the developmental, neural and computational bases of language learning and representation, and the relationships among language, culture, and technology.
In a recent study reported in Scientific Reports*, Prof. Li and his team investigated the brain signatures of students’ understanding of expository texts. The study explored whether it is possible to identify text comprehension through examining different brain activity patterns. Participants were 51 native English speakers who were invited to read five scientific texts inside an MRI scanner while their eye movements and brain responses were recorded simultaneously. Their reading habits and frequency in using electronic media (e.g. smartphone, tablets, computers) were also surveyed.
As noted by Prof. Li and his team, expository texts (e.g. articles from scientific textbooks) typically use inter-connected concepts in the knowledge structure, concepts that the authors want the readers to grasp. Thus, in order to comprehend such texts, readers have to link information from one part of the text to the information found in another. In a nutshell, readers need to integrate multiple sources of information and organize them in a structured fashion if they want to truly understand complex concepts.
Apart from distinct neurocognitive signatures of knowledge structure, the study showed a negative correlation between the self-reported frequency in electronic device usage and brain activity in the left insula and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). These two brain regions are crucial for information processing, such as attention switching and understanding language, according to Prof. Li and his team. Lower activity in IFG and insula may suggest that the readers were not using these critical regions for comprehending the text, and for integrating the inter-connected information into a structure in the mental representation.
The sections show the significant cluster in left insula and IFG pars triangularis in which the beta estimates for integrative processing were negatively correlated with the individual's E-device usage reported in the Reading Background Questionnaire. From: Neurocognitive Signatures of Naturalistic Reading of Scientific Texts: A Fixation-Related fMRI Study
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 Prof. Li. However, he cautioned, “It’s important to note that what we are showing here isn’t causation. At this point, we are just showing correlation between these brain areas and excessive electronic device usage.
The study has opened new avenues by using neuroimaging and eye-tracking methods for examining the effects of e-device use on learning and education. Young students in schools and colleges, in particular, may be more prone to the adverse effects of e-devices on learning, due to their frequent and constant engagement with e-devices, especially smartphones.
*This paper is one of the top 100 neuroscience papers for Scientific Reports in 2019. The Scientific Reports published over 1,710 neuroscience papers in 2019.