Cell phones are getting smarter. But some cell phone owners are not. In a world where household appliances are gaining intelligence, and cars are learning to drive themselves; where there’s an app to help you do almost anything you want to do, and do it better; where all knowable answers can be accessed through Wi-Fi devices that sit on your lap or ride in your pocket – surely, digital intelligence is growing at a fast and furious rate. However, is biological intelligence losing out?
The Attack of Digital Devices on Our Memory
The Internet, digital devices, and software are invading our daily lives. They’re becoming a part of how we think and operate. Now, they’re overtaking our mental capacities too, and diminishing our memories.
In a recent study by UCLA and Gallup, researchers polled 18,500 people aged 18-99, and found that 20 percent of them had memory complaints. This includes, surprisingly, 14 percent of 18 to 39-year-old young adults.
A study by Hokkaido University saw worrying signs, as well. Among 150 young adults in Japan, one in 10 had unusually bad memory function for their age. It was so bad, in fact, that the lead researcher, neurologist Toshiyuki Sawaguchi, called it “a type of brain dysfunction”.
“They’re losing the ability to remember new things, to pull out old data, or to distinguish between important and unimportant information,” he says. “Young people today are becoming stupid.”
In South Korea, they’ve already coined a name for the condition of being young and very forgetful: digital dementia. It refers to cognitive failure similar to what’s seen in the brain-injured and the very ill. Those who have digital dementia forget their own phone numbers and fail at tests in school that require heavy memorization. Psychiatrist Kim Dae-jin of Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital reports that excessive smart phone use damages long-term memory.
Overusing smart phones causes lopsided brain development, according to Dr. Kim Young-bo of Gachon University Gil Medical Center, who states, “Since smart phone use mostly stimulates the left side of the brain, the right side, which is linked with concentration, eventually degenerates, reducing attention and memory span.”
The Google Invasion and Damage to Our Memories
Living in a digital world is changing the way our brains function. For example, we feel less need to know and remember things, because we can always “Google it”.
The study by Columbia University cites “Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips.” The researchers found that people store less information in their heads when that information is accessible online or on a computer.
They call it transitive memory. It’s when people don’t remember things – the names of famous people, capital cities, important dates, addresses, contact names, and so on – because they think they can easily retrieve that information from elsewhere, such as online. It’s like borrowing Google’s brain and giving our own a break. The problem is that most experts believe that memories stored in our brain that are not used eventually fade away. As they say, “Use it or lose it.”
The Threat of Memory Loss Among Young People
Compounding this, many young adults experience such a barrage of lifestyle and emotional stimuli that it hampers their ability to remember.
Obviously, drug and alcohol abuse erases memory pretty quickly. Poor diet, lack of sleep, and not enough exercise also negatively affect brain function. Stress impairs the mind. Depression, researchers found, is one of the greatest risk factors for a crappy memory.
Unfortunately, young adults are really good at using many of the above memory disruptors. Clark University found that among 1,000 young adults, 72 percent felt stressed about life. Moreover, 33 percent claimed to be often depressed. With all these odds against them, it seems that younger users of smart phones are at risk of losing their intelligence.
Experts warn that problems with memory and mental function in young adulthood could lead to an early onset of much more serious forms of dementia later in life. So, how can we bulwark our brains against the threat of dementia? By keeping that think tank healthy and active.
The Defensive Strategy for Better Memory
Simply live a healthier lifestyle: eating a nutritious diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise promotes brain function. Exercise encourages blood flow, which draws fresh oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Sleeps helps us consolidate – or “gel together” – new memories. During sleep, our brains build more connections, or synapses, which solidifies newly learned information.
Studies have shown that learning a new skill stretches the brain and improves memory power. The more challenging the activity, and the more it uses different types of mental engagement, the better it is for strengthening our minds.
Finally, when it comes to technology use, it’s always good to be aware that there are side-effects. Resist being too lazy-brained. Consider these strategies: Employ one’s own muscle at times. Do mental math. Detox with a media cleanse; log off and do other things. Give the brain a chance to engage more in different types of activity. Read books. Studies show that people retain more information when they read from organic pages than when they click around online. All in all, let’s be owners of technology—let’s not get “pwned” by it.
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Forster, Raquel “Digital Dementia: Researcher Warns Against Google & Co.” Credit Suisse. January 11, 2013.
Gallagher, James. “Sleep’s Memory Role Discovered.” BBC News. June 6, 2014.
Norton, Cherry and Nathan, Adam. “Computer-Mad Generation Has a Memory Crash.” Sunday Times. February 6, 2001
Ryall, Julian. “Surge in ‘Digital Dementia.’” The Telegraph. June 24, 2013.
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