Now, with mobile phones almost part of our arms, and tech to serve every purpose, it’s hard to imagine or remember what life was like in the dark ages before we augmented our lives with all these machines. The analog past seems like a parallel universe in which nobody ever gets anywhere because they don’t have Google Maps. But what about our future with these innovative additions?
With so much information at our fingertips, we don’t need to retain information in our brains, and yet we often feel so much smarter by virtue of immediately being able to answer any questions we have (even if we do forget the answers as quickly as we can close the Google tab). Even schools are embracing new technology, and implementing it in classrooms to improve the teaching and learning processes.
And yet, the jury’s still out on whether all this tech is actually making us smarter or causing considerable damages to our brains.
One of Germany’s leading brain researchers, Neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, argues that digital technology is so harmful to the developing brain that it should be banned in education entirely. Not only does it interfere with knowledge retention and disrupt cognitive abilities, but it also leads to addictive behaviours– not something generally considered desirable for the youth. Spitzer argues that spending too much time on mobile phones and the internet will lead to what he in 2012 coined “Digital Dementia”.
Spitzer uses Digital Dementia to describe a mental condition common in countries like South Korea and Hong Kong which have extremely high technology usage. It’s characterised by difficulty concentrating and remembering. According to the Scientific and Medical Network, Spitzer said in an interview that when you search a term on Google and get 10 000 hits to choose from, your background knowledge is what helps you find the most meaningful information amongst the clutter. “If you don’t know anything,” he said “you won’t know what to do with all the results Google throws at you.”
“Contrary to belief, this background knowledge doesn’t come from Googling. Psychologists from Columbia and Harvard found that content from Google is retained for the least amount of time because our brains think we can access this information whenever we want. This is different from newspapers or books, where we retain much more knowledge. “
In short, our short-term memory deteriorates due to underuse when we overuse our tech. Furthermore, it’s been proposed that frequently playing video games may reduce grey matter in the hippocampus, which also increases the propensity for dementia, among other conditions.
Spitzer isn’t alone in his concern about what our smartphones and search engines are doing to our brains. Jim Kwik, host of the podcast Kwik Brain and CEO of Kwik Learning stresses that “If you feel a little bit absent-minded—like “senior moments” are coming a little bit early,” it may be due to digital dementia. Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you came for (and then just stood their like a sim whose player cancelled his action)? Or gone to the store to buy something important, and left with bags full of everything but that item? Well, rest assured you’re not alone, but while it can be easy to dismiss these instances as just another part of everyday life, these frustrating little slips may be due to too much time spent on your phone and the internet.
And it’s not only our memory that’s affected. Milica Vujasin at Paldesk.com, in an article about dealing with Digital Dementia, also lists anxiety, depression and balance disorders as being connected to the overuse of our devices. We’re starting to learn more and more about these side-effects of the inventions we’ve come to rely on, and it’s probably time time we took action to protect ourselves against them.
So what can we do?
Not all hope is lost! Kwik believes that those “senior moments” are caused by attention rather than retention and that there’s no such thing as good or bad memory, simply memory that is trained or untrained. This is good news because it means that by exercising your brain, and forcing it to rely less on Google as a mental crutch, you can make it stronger.
Kwik offers paid-for courses on how to do this, but if you’re looking for some free tricks you can use to maximise your brain’s potential, his podcast is available wherever you listen to your podcasts.
The Sydney Morning Herald published some more tips on how to avoid digital overload and guard against all this damage to your noggin. They recommended mindful practices, like meditation, which can make you more conscious of your daily practices, including those which involve tech. They also suggest taking regular digital detoxes (read our digital detox article here) and minimising digital multitasking by using only one screen at a time.
Vujasin recommends increasing your physical activity in order to improve cognitive function, and paying attention to your posture to avoid developing a slouch from bending over your phone or laptop all day
Reading is also a great (and fun!) way to improve your memory, creativity, and just get your eyes on something other than a lit screen, and so is learning a new language!
These tips and more are also recommended by Jessica Gwinn on alzeihmers.net, who in addition, states that “essentially, we need to be doing anything that can lead to the healthy restructuring or ‘rewiring’ of our brains. We need to be spending less time relying on technology and more time relying on our brain power.”
“Although it’s not easy or ideal for most of us who are ‘plugged in’ due to our jobs and the needs of the modern world,” writes Gwinn, “we should, at the very least unplug during the weekend. Work can — and should — wait. Facebook can wait. If we focus instead on having real conversations, reading books, getting out into nature, and disconnecting from technology, we will be taking care of our brain health and our emotional health as well.”
While it is hard to predict the future, and undeniable that our devices make life easier and a lot more convenient, it’s never a bad idea to be prepared for any potential outcomes and protect yourself against the negative ones. Prevention is, after all, better than forgetting what you came into the room for.