Digital Amnesia

The human brain can store approximately 2 petabytes of data. Some even suggest that the brain has the capacity to store the same amount of information as the entire internet. But now that we have Google at our fingertips, information retention can at times prove challenging.

A recent Kapersky study found that over 90% of participants agreed that the internet is an online extension of their brain. 44% said that they rely on their smartphone as a memory tool. Furthermore, many people are now favouring the ability to navigate and locate required information online, rather than the ability to remember it. Why should we bother remembering details when we can look it up? 

Our brains are made up of billions of neurons. Repeated, habitual action can strengthen neurons, creating powerful neural pathways that determine everything from our thoughts, behaviours and habits. Repeatedly consulting Google rather than recalling information, weakens these pathways and can be habit-forming.

Studies have shown that our memories may be more powerful than we think. But why then are we finding it difficult to retain information?

Our brain’s capacity is not the problem according to memory researcher Paul Reber at Northwestern University “Any analysis of the number of neurons will lead to a sense of the tremendous capacity of the human brain. But it doesn’t matter because our storage process is slower than our experience of the world. Imagine an iPod with infinite storage capacity. Even if you can store every song ever written, you still have to buy and upload all that music and then pull individual songs up when you want to play them.”

Memory outsourcing is not new. In Roman times, slaves were employed to remember important information for their masters. Writing was a way of remembering information which would be otherwise lost. Our smartphones are just another evolution of this cycle.

Digital natives may stand a better chance as work environments and systems will be shaped by current technology. Their brains may be adapting quicker to the new surge in information and tech navigation. A study by Foehr “Media multitasking among American youth(2006) outlined that young people’s ability to process greater volumes of information may be a boon to them in the future. People adept at navigating the internet know where to source information and this will be an invaluable skill in future work environments.

“We need to understand the long term implications of this for how we remember and how we protect those memories,” said David Emm, principal researcher at Kaspersky Lab. It is clear that technology is having an effect on our memory. So what steps can you take to manage your mind and improve your memory?

  1. Headspace – is a meditation app, perfect for building a mindfulness practise and quieting a busy mind. 
  2. Lumosity – is a brain training app designed to stimulate your brain and enhance cognitive function
  3. Duolingo – learning another language is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your memory. Get started with this free app.

This talk by scientist Joshua Foer details how you can build “memory palaces’ and use associations to retrieve memories from your brain.

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