It seems like every generation has fears about what technology can do to the brain. 50 years ago parents warned their children about the dangers of too much TV. 30 years ago it was video games. Now, we’re in the midst of a revolution where we’re more digitally connected than ever. While most of us who grew up in previous decades turned out ok, what about now? Does today’s technology really pose a threat to our brain health?
Although scientists are still in the early phases, some research says yes. Part of the issue lies in how tethered we are to our devices. A Washington Post article recently reported that 4 out of 5 teenagers sleep with their smartphones in the bedroom. The parents weren’t much better. Out of a poll of 1,000 parents, nearly half reported that they themselves felt ‘addicted’ to their smartphone (source.) Rather than just being an after-work activity, digital connection is now an all-day-long practice. According to a combined research review, the average person today spends over 4 hours per day on their mobile device, and that doesn’t include time spent looking at television or computers (source.)
So, in terms of our health, what does all this mean? Some scientists are beginning to link technology addiction to cognitive dysfunction. There are several areas of potential concern: sleep, focus, attention, emotional health, and more. But today we’re going to focus on just one issue: memory. A growing body of research is finding that modern technology can impact our memory on several levels—and in many cases for the worse. In this article, we’ll go over some of these key findings, and we’ll look at some ways that you can help set healthy boundaries with your digital devices.
The Internet Could Be Replacing Our Memory, And That’s Not Good
How many times per week do you Google something to jog your memory? If you’re like a lot of people you probably do it all the time: to look up facts, find out when events start, to remember how to do things, etc. Google has become our constant companion for anything we need to know. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, however, scientific studies show that the more we rely on a machine to remember things for us, the less we think for ourselves.
This is called transactive memory, and it’s nothing new. In fact, we have been relying on transactive memory throughout recorded history. Since the dawn of time, we have depended on the knowledge and expertise of others to inform us of what we need to know. The difference now, of course, is that we’re relying upon machines for knowledge--and we’re relying upon them much more.
So what’s the big deal? Why do we need to know things if we can just Google them in 2 seconds? According to technology expert Nicholas Carr, there’s a big problem with learning information without bothering to remember it. According to Carr, if the internet becomes our brain’s external hard drive, then we miss out on the associations that come with learning. In other words, forming a memory is a major key to how we understand the world and how it works. If we bypass that process, then we actually don’t make the mental connections that allow us to think deeply. What’s key here is that it’s not so much the information itself that is important; rather, it’s the process our minds go through as we create memories. This is actually what helps us grow, evolve, and grasp deep concepts. Our reliance upon the internet for our memory could be undermining that process.
Technology Related Stress May Worsen Memory
Did you know that a recent study concluded that millennials are more likely to forget what day it is than senior citizens? Does that sound strange? It’s actually part of a broader trend. Young people (ages 18-34) are developing more cognitive issues (fatigue, stress, and depression,) and researchers are linking it in part to heavy technology use (source.) In a Huffington Post article, occupational therapist Patricia Gutentag explained this phenomenon: “Stress often leads to forgetfulness, depression, and poor judgment...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 (source.)” Although young adults seem to be suffering the worst, this trend also applies to anyone who is overly connected to technology. In numerous studies, technology addiction has been linked to poor cognitive function, including emotional imbalance, insomnia, and difficulty focusing. All of this can lead to higher stress, which disturbs our ability to remember.
Information Overload May Inhibit Memory
Imagine for a moment how it would feel to spend a month out in nature away from electricity, smartphones and the internet. Now picture yourself living that way for the rest of your life. Is it hard to envision?
As foreign as it is to us now, that is how we humans have lived throughout history (and prehistory). That lifestyle is how we’ve been conditioned, and our biology has shaped itself accordingly.
Now consider how differently we live today: we work at night with electric light; we’re bombarded with sensations from screens all day, and we interact more virtually than we do in person. All of this is a jarring switch from how we are biologically wired.
According to Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UC San Francisco, “The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment...We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do. We know already there are consequences (source.)”
One of the consequences may be memory erosion due to information overload. As you might already know, we have different types of memory, including short-term, long-term, and sensory memory. Our short-term memory is like our mental scratchpad. It contains what we’re thinking about in any given moment, and it’s what we have to work with when it comes to processing information. The potential danger of technology is that it can overload our short-term memory and prevent us from retaining important info. Dr. Kenneth Freundlich of Morris Psychology Group puts it this way:
We are wired to remember and use the information our eyes and ears receive...But our working memory – the mental workspace that retains information long enough for us to manipulate it or use it – can hold fewer than ten items at a time.
As we’re continually bombarded with more information than we can process, the quality of our memory starts to go down. Dr. Freundlich goes on to say that this can interfere with our overall thinking and cognitive function, as well as our concentration (source.) He stresses, among other things, the importance of placing boundaries on technology in order to eliminate unnecessary exposure to overstimulation.
Next in this article, we will touch on some practical ways that you can protect yourself from the potentially negative effects of technology on your memory.
7 Ways You Can Help Prevent ‘Digital Amnesia’
Although you probably don’t want to live completely off the grid, there are ways you can limit your exposure to technology—or at the very least set healthy boundaries. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
1. Keep your phone out of the bedroom — This may seem obvious, but cell phones emit ‘blue light,’ which is a light ray that can disturb your circadian rhythm and sleep. Many people scroll through their phones before bed. This can contribute to insomnia, which can, in turn, lower your memory function.
2. Turn Off Phone Notifications — Phone notifications can break your focus and amp you up. The ‘ding’ sound can encourage the release of stress hormones (source.) Turning your phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ is a great way to eliminate unnecessary distractions and boost your overall mental health.
3. Reduce Multitasking — Multitasking is another stress-inducing activity that can lower brain function.
4. Get Social — One of the main reasons we default to screen time whether, on our phone, computer, or TV is because we’re bored or alone. Finding ways to join with others is a great way to detach from technology. Check your newspaper or meetup.com for events. Try taking a class or joining a group fitness program—anything to get you in contact with others!
5. Designate Times To Check Email, Messages, Etc. — Most of us check our texts, messages, social media and emails multiple times throughout the day and as they come in. This can force us to constantly be on our mobile device literally every hour. Designating set times to check your phone or computer can save you time and stress.
6. Insist On Face Time — No, I don’t mean FaceTime the app—I mean real face time. Many people (especially young people) would gladly have a 2-hour conversation with you over text but wouldn’t pick up the phone if you called them. If your friends and loved ones want to connect over a long period of time, tell them you can’t text but that you’re happy to get together. It’s not only healthier; it could be more fun.
7. Step Back To See The Big Picture — If you find yourself constantly connected to screens and devices, you may need to zoom out in order to understand why. Taking time to pause or even detox from technology entirely could be a great step in helping gain the right perspective. What factors are driving your screen time? Is it work-related? Does it stem from social disconnection? You may need to dedicate a set period of time to understand what is driving your technological habits. A great way to do this is to start sharing your goals with friends and loved ones. You may find others who want to join with you in your journey to cut back on technology.
While technology is here to stay, it doesn’t have to become a source of stress and poor health. Finding a way to properly disconnect from the digital world could help boost your overall happiness, clarity, as well as brain function. On this website, you can find more ideas to help you develop your own personal health plan. If memory and brain health is of particular interest to you, we have tons of articles in our resource section. Check them out in the menu bar above!