Are Smartphones Dulling Our Memories and How Can We Keep Brain Cells Sharp?

In our busy, tech-driven world, with its constant flurry of emails, news alerts, and other distractions, it’s tempting to think our brains have reached information overload.

As we struggle to process and retain the data that’s being sent to us from all directions, how do we stop our brain from reaching its full capacity?

Experts say the prevalence of smartphones in our daily lives can both help and hinder efforts to collect memories.

Digital distraction reduces engagement

For one thing, if you’re browsing social media while listening to someone speak, you’re unlikely to remember much of the conversation.

“We can use them while we’re doing other things, but it reduces the amount of processing we can spend on those other things,” said Professor Alex Easton, from Durham University in the UK, who co-edited the episodic memory handbook.

“If you want to remember something well, you have to be really involved. You must attend. It helps you process it and keep it in your memory. The more distracted you are, the less that material will be processed by your brain, the less your brain will remember that material.

When people do too many things at once, their cognitive load, to use the term favored by psychologists, is high and memory suffers.

Don’t live in the moment

A music fan uses her phone to capture a lasting memory of a concert in South Korea.  AFP

Technology can also distract us when we attend, for example, a music concert. Professor Catherine Loveday, of the University of Westminster, who wrote The secret world of the brainsaid people remember a concert less well if they’ve been busy taking videos and photos during it.

“We’re often not in the moment,” says Professor Loveday. “Our brain does not register everything that happens around us because we are not fully there. People can get to the point where they rely on the smartphone to record things and therefore are not fully immersed in what they are experiencing.

In other circumstances, technology can keep track of things, like flight details, appointments, or shopping lists, that we don’t want or need to memorize constantly.

Technology as memory aid

“It can relieve our biological memory of a load of details that we don’t need to clutter it with,” said Professor Robert Logie, from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, who is co- book publisher, in particular Working memory: State of the science.

So, in today’s world, we don’t need to remember everything, we just need to remember where to find that information.

This process of “cognitive offloading” can raise concerns that technology is doing work that our brains should be doing.

But Professor Logie said such concerns were not new, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks, who feared books would prevent people from using their memories.

Blurred life during the pandemic

There has been speculation that the Covid-19 pandemic and even the war in Ukraine have acted as a drag on our memory capacity.

Professor Loveday studied the effects of the pandemic and found that while people felt their memory had been affected, “for the people in our study, that didn’t seem to be the case”.

She notes, however, that people with dementia may have experienced worsening memory problems because of the pandemic, and some people with long-term Covid have had memory problems.

The pandemic may have affected many of us because almost every day during lockdown was the same, so there were fewer contextual clues to help recall events.

“Time passed as it always has… but the context did not change,” Professor Easton said. “We find that many of us have found memory quite difficult. This thing about context and how we distinguish events using contextual cues is really important.

Also, people have socialized less, and under normal circumstances, socializing – discussing what we’ve been up to – helps consolidate memories. Staying home longer may also have been a problem.

“Being on the move triggers our hippocampus, where memories are stored,” says Professor Loveday. “People not moving through their environment can impact that.”

The pandemic has also been a source of stress, and high levels of stress are physiologically not good for memory, Prof Loveday adds. Stress affects all three stages of memorization: encoding, storing and retrieving a memory.

“These are big, stressful events that eat up a lot of your processing power,” Professor Easton said. “It probably makes you more distracted and less able to process material when you’re stressed, but also when you’re stressed it can be harder to pick up that material you already have there.”

Sleep loss affects memory

Besides stress, lack of sleep can affect memory because good quality sleep helps us learn or encode memories and when it comes after learning or encoding can retain or consolidate memories, said Professor Edwin Robertson, Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. at the University of Glasgow in the UK.

“Therefore, sleep loss can have a dual effect on memory, impairing its acquisition/encoding and retention/consolidation,” he said.

“Sleep duration and quality are believed to be reduced in modern society, and are certainly impaired as we age. Sleep may also have been impaired by the pandemic, and now by the resulting cost-of-living stress. »

Stress can be one of the factors why we sometimes cannot remember information that we actually know. Another saw something out of context.

An example is the “butcher on the bus” phenomenon, in which someone spots another bus passenger they know, but cannot remember who they are.

The person is the local butcher, but if they’re not at the butcher’s and they’re wearing something different, they’re harder to identify.

“One day you may not have all the elements to remember this information,” Professor Easton said. “Another day, you might have a different set of clues that give you a reason to ask for that information. As a result, you bring it up more easily.

Professor Robertson highlights how similar memories can compete. For example, a person may continue to remember a word that sounds the same (is phonologically similar) as the word they are trying to remember, but has a different meaning.

“You might want to ask for the fruit papaya, but instead only offer the Spanish paella,” he said.

How to improve memory

Regular exercise can help keep the mind active.  AFP

A crucial step in improving memory is, according to Professor Robertson, eliminating harmful influences. Getting enough sleep, not switching between tasks and eliminating distractions can therefore help. Exercising more can help improve memory.

Here are strategies for improving memory in specific circumstances.

Self test

Professor Logie recommends self-testing to improve memory, for example, of material that needs to be learned for an exam.

Rather than reading something multiple times, it’s better to read it, put aside the source of the material, like a book, try to remember it, and test if you’ve done it successfully.

“This repeated recovery has proven to be a very effective way to improve your learning,” he said. “By improving your learning, you are improving your memory of what you have learned.”

Thinking about or talking about an event immediately after it happens recovers and strengthens memory.

“Forgetting details about events is very quick,” Prof Logie said. “It’s helpful because we forget a lot of insignificant details.”

To avoid forgetting things you want to remember, Professor Logie suggests resuming a lecture, for example, right after it is finished.

“If you wait longer and try to remember it, it becomes harder to get it back because of the forgetting process,” he said.

remember names

Sometimes we have trouble remembering the name of someone we chatted with at a business or social event. One of the factors behind this may be that, at least in Western European cultures, people tend not to say the person’s name when talking to them.

“So it’s no surprise that people forget names because they don’t use them,” Prof Logie said. “If it’s a face-to-face conversation, you have 10 minutes of face memory, but only a few seconds of name.”

A simple answer is to say the person’s name once in a while during the conversation, as this “strengthens the memory”.

Professor Easton suggests making an effort to pay attention and repeat a person’s name in your head after hearing them for the first time.

“But mostly don’t get distracted, but take that information. In a way, it’s about being present in the moment,” he said.

Updated: May 21, 2022, 04:00

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