Take a moment to think about the last time you memorized someone’s phone number. Was it way back when, perhaps circa 2001? And when was the last time you were at a dinner party or having a conversation with friends, when you whipped out your smartphone to Google the answer to someone’s question? Probably last week.
Technology changes the way we live our daily lives, the way we learn, and the way we use our faculties of attention — and a growing body of research has suggested that it may have profound effects on our memories (particularly the short-term, or working, memory), altering and in some cases impairing its function.
The implications of a poor working memory on our brain functioning and overall intelligence levels are difficult to over-estimate.
“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system,” Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, wrote in Wired in 2010. “When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought.”
While our long-term memory has a nearly unlimited capacity, the short-term memory has more limited storage, and that storage is very fragile. “A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind,” Carr explains.
Meanwhile, new research has found that taking photos — an increasingly ubiquitous practice in our smartphone-obsessed culture — actually hinders our ability to remember that which we’re capturing on camera.
Concerned about premature memory loss? You probably should be. Here are five things you should know about the way technology is affecting your memory.
Information overload makes it harder to retain information.
Even a single session of Internet usage can make it more difficult to file away information in your memory, says Erik Fransén, computer science professor at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. And according to Tony Schwartz, productivity expert and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, most of us aren’t able to effectively manage the overload of information we’re constantly bombarded with.
When the working memory is experiencing digital overload, it’s like a glass of water overflowing. Schwartz explained in an interview with the Huffington Post in June:
“It’s like having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down. We’re constantly losing the information that’s just come in — we’re constantly replacing it, and there’s no place to hold what you’ve already gotten. It makes for a very superficial experience; you’ve only got whatever’s in your mind at the moment. And it’s hard for people to metabolize and make sense of the information because there’s so much coming at them and they’re so drawn to it. You end up feeling overwhelmed because what you have is an endless amount of facts without a way of connecting them into a meaningful story.”
The Internet is becoming the brain’s “external hard drive.”
Research has found that when we know a digital device or tool will remember a piece of information for us, we’re less likely to remember it ourselves. A recent Scientific American article likened the Internet to the brain’s “external hard drive,” explaining that the social aspect of remembering has been replaced by new digital tools.
Remembering is, historically, a social process — we remember certain things and share those things with others, and in turn rely on others to fill us in on the things we’ve forgotten. To a certain extent, we delegate mental tasks like remembering facts to others in our social group, SciAm explains, but now the Internet can do that job for us.
“The Internet changes everything,” Scientific American wrote. “With nearly ubiquitous online access, many people may first perform a smartphone search rather than calling a friend.”
Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think, explains that now, rather than turning to the wisdom of our social tribe, we’re using tools like Google and Evernote as our “phone a friend” option when we need information.
“We’re treating them like crazily memorious friends who are usually ready at hand,” Thompson wrote in a Slate article. “Our ‘intimate dyad’ now includes a silicon brain.”
Distraction makes it more difficult to form memories.
Attention is key to forming strong memories. So that movie you texted and tweeted your way through last night? You may not be able to remember many of the details when a friend asks you about it a few days later.
“Forgetting… is a sign of how busy we are,” Zaldy S. Tan, director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told Reader’s Digest. “When we’re not paying good attention, the memories we form aren’t very robust, and we have a problem retrieving the information later.”
Last year at MIT, researchers identified a neural circuit that helps the brain to create long-lasting memories, and the circuit was found to work more effectively when the brain is actively paying attention to what it’s looking at. Numerous studies have also found that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, they understand and retain less of the information.
Information overload causes us to lose sight of the big picture (and then the small picture).
Harvard physics professor John Edward Huth wrote in the New York Times in July that the Internet may have a greater effect on our sense of meaning than we realize. He explained that an over-reliance on technology has a tendency to encourage us to isolate pieces of information without fitting them into a broader cognitive schema.
“Sadly, we often atomize knowledge into pieces that don’t have a home in a larger conceptual framework,” Huth wrote. “When this happens, we surrender meaning to guardians of knowledge and it loses its personal value.”
But we need this larger story to help ourselves remember the smaller details. We need this broader context, often, to hook the detail into our mind. In psychology, this is known as the Baker-baker paradox. The paradox is named for an experiment in which subjects were put into two groups and shown a picture of a man — one group was told that the man’s last name was Baker, while the other group was told that the man was a baker. When later shown the image of the man and asked to recall the associated word, those who were told the man’s occupation were much more likely to recall the word. It’s all about the power of context: when we think of a baker, other images and something of a story come to mind (aprons, kitchen, fresh bread), while the name Baker exists on its own without a larger context.
The bottom line? If you lose the bigger story, you’re likely lose the smaller details, too.
Millennials’ memories are rapidly degenerating.
So-called “senior moments” are becoming increasingly common among younger people, recent data has found, and it’s thought to be due, at least in part, to excessive reliance on technology. A 2013 Trending Machine national poll found that millennials (aged 18-34) are more likely than those over the age of 55 to forget what day it is (15 percent vs. seven percent), where they put their keys (14 percent vs. eight percent). Gen-Yers even forget to take a shower (six percent) more frequently than seniors. Rising stress levels (which may also have something to do with constant connectivity) could be a factor as well.
“Stress often leads to forgetfulness, depression and poor judgment,” Patricia Gutentag, family and occupational therapist, said in a press release for the poll. “We find higher rates of ADHD diagnoses in young adults. This is a population that has grown up multitasking using technology, often compounded by lack of sleep, all of which results in high levels of forgetfulness.”