Think how technology and massively increased access to information has changed our lives over the past 30 years. Never before has information been so readily available on such a huge scale. Up until 30 years ago, if I had a medical question, I had to physically go to the medical library, search through volumes of the Index Medicus, then track down the relevant studies in the library stacks, read the study and either take notes or photocopy the study. Now, I type in my search terms in PubMed or other database and have thousands of studies pop up within a split-second. How about travel? Remember sending a postcard to the Chamber of Commerce or other organization requesting booklets about the area of interest? You’d get them a couple of weeks later, having to physically inquire about each and every location you were contemplating, trying to identify attractions, entertainment, hotels. Now, of course, you are a few search phrases and clicks from tons of travel information, including seconds from airline arrangements, car rental info, hotel bookings, reviews, etc.
Could immediate access to enormous volumes of information change the human brain and other aspects of physiology? The brain is plastic, after all, changing to accommodate new habits, new thoughts, new behaviors. We know, for instance, that activities such as speed-of-processing have been shown to reduce the likelihood of Alzheimer’s dementia substantially. Stress can reduce the richness of neuronal (brain cell) interconnectivity, especially in the hippocampus (responsible for conversion of short-term to long-term memory). Exercise and chronic caloric restriction have been shown to be neurotrophic, i.e., cause release of trophic (growth) factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF, that encourage brain cell growth and proliferation.
Think of the 3-year old with enormous potential for brain plasticity who grabs hold of an iPad and quickly learns how to navigate its functions even before he/she can read. What will this child be like in 20 or 30 years? Surely the plastic nature of the human brain will cultivate a creature who thinks, reasons, and processes information differently and at a different rate than those of us who grew up in a non-digital world.
And it’s not just about information—it’s also about all the functionalities that information access provides. In particular, the ability to interact and collaborate is facilitated. In health, for instance, if you were diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease or polymyalgia rheumatica in past, you relied on the limited resources of the doctor, maybe a pamphlet, lay literature such as Reader’s Digest, or the encyclopedia. If there was a support organization, you could send a postcard and obtain some of their literature. Today, you search for resources and, within seconds, identify websites, support organizations, discussion forums, wikis, videos, social media to help you deal with your condition, even collaborate with others in testing new solutions (what I call a “personal clinical trial”). These new resources provide better information, access to new research, the ability to talk to others with the condition, obtain the insights of experts. How nimble will the 3-year old be in 40 years in navigating resources in health or other spheres? Will he/she be better able to gather, process, and synthesize new information, better able to conceive of new solutions? I believe that is not just possible, but inevitable.
So I label this new version of human Homo informaticus, spawned from the comparatively slow analog world of Homo sapiens, with brains wired for rapid, effective information processing and ability to collaborate to create solutions. I highlight this issue because the healthcare system and doctors fail to recognize this phenomenon, instead choosing to maintain the dusty old paternalistic doctor-patient relationship with you as the helpless, ignorant recipient of presumed expert information delivered by the doctor, complete with disparaging remarks applied to minimize your knowledge: “Oh, you consulted Dr. Google again, did you?” Or “Don’t believe everything you read online.” That’s true, but it ignores the enormous volume of genuinely helpful information, research, and conversations that do indeed advance personal knowledge.
Bottom line: As a member of this evolving creature called Homo informaticus, recognize that, the more you participate in exploring ideas surrounding health, the smarter and more effective you become, the greater the divergence between your personal health sophistication and that of the doctor. This is why, time and again, people tell me “I was in the doctor’s exam room talking about nutrition, supplements, etc. and I realized that I was the smartest one in the room.”