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Digital Dementia: How Technology And The Internet Impact Memory

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Speranza via Flickr.

Does easy access to the Internet weaken memory? If so, how, and can we fix it?

Do smart phones make us dumber? Are we relying too much on our mobile phones and easy internet access, keeping information neatly filed electronically but unattainable in our actual heads? Ten years ago, you probably had numbers memorized. You probably knew facts off the top of your head, and could back them without consultation from the world wide web.

Certainly, electronic devices can act as a second brain for some people. Some people call this digital dementia  – a side effect of outsourcing too much information in our technology that affects memory and offline functionality.

Others, such as the New York Times, call it a version of transactive memory: the reliance on family, friends, and coworkers (and now, Google and mobile phones) as references for knowledge. People have always used other people to store memories: now, many use the Internet or digital devices.

How has technology changed the ways we store knowledge?

According to a study published in Science Magazine, easy access to the Internet as a reference source means that people are better at remembering where information can be accessed rather than what the actual information is.

Their study asked individuals to remember trivia facts as well as which of five folders the answers were stored in. Researchers were surprised to find that participants remembered folder location better than the facts themselves.

Transactive memory, which used to be specific to human relationships, has therefore expanded. Human memory is not necessarily worse, but works differently; instead of storing knowledge, we are more likely to store the “how” and “where” of getting to it.

How could this be problematic?

What if we become so accustomed to outsourcing knowledge, that when the time comes to memorize something important, we aren’t able to? Are there negative impacts of being too wired?

Doctors in South Korea are calling the effect of technology overload “digital dementia” – and it isn’t looking great for young people. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, young people are going into clinics with symptoms that include memory problems, an inability to concentrate, and sleeplessness: elements usually displayed in the elderly.

German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, author of a book entitled “Digital Dementia,” believes that prolonged exposure to technology, especially in childhood and adolescence, could be extremely detrimental, as it deprives young people of the full range of stimuli needed to learn and function in the world.

He also believes that the ease of switching between pages and topics online impedes the developing brain’s ability to build up the neuron patterns used for long-term memory.

Memory Hacks: How you can combat digital dementia.

Perhaps the best way to combat digital dementia would be limiting your reliance on digital devices, and the time you spend with them. Here are some other “memory hacks” to help you combat the side effects of technology overload.

  • Get better exercise and sleep. Make sure you get moving every day to help you maintain and increase your mental acuity. According to the Association for Psychological Science, getting good sleep lets the brain firm up memories of recently acquired information, which is essential to optimal brain and body functioning during the waking hours.

  • Keep relationships strong. Having meaningful relationships and a strong support system are vital not only to emotional health, but also to brain health. Because humans are social animals, relationships help stimulate our brains, and lessen memory decline.

Bonus Hack: Loci’s Memory Palace

Post by Curiousmatic.

Invented over 2000 years ago, and used widely by Greeks and Romans for speeches, this memory method is basically a visual filing system with which a person can remember any number of points of knowledge in a specific order.

It’s accomplished by visualizing a journey, perhaps through a familiar place such as your home, and filing pieces of information along the way: for example, on the couch, under a table, in a drawer. Walking through this “palace” so to speak, and visualizing the information in the locations where you’ve stored it, allows for uber-effective memorization.

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Jennifer Markert