Why staying connected leads to ‘digital amnesia’

We’re outsourcing our brainwork to digital devices, and our memories are the worse for it.

I may be losing it, but at least I’m not alone, I now know.

I remember my work phone number half the time, maybe less. I get my kids’ cell phone numbers right a little more than that. I don’t know anyone’s street address anymore, and I rarely can recall what I had for lunch or the last book I read.

Yes, being in my mid-50’s has something to do with this. Journalists who make careers out of cramming their brains full of information that quickly becomes useless have always joked about getting “newsheimer’s disease.” But it’s not only hacks and middle-agers that are increasingly spaced out. It seems to be all of us.

An interesting and scary study that has just come out from Europe documented a forgetfulness phenomenon it calls “digital amnesia.” Young and old, we’re outsourcing our brainwork to digital devices, and memories are the worse for it.

The study by Kaspersky Labs surveyed 6,000 people 16 and older in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Benelux. The results show “the majority of these digital consumers are unable to recall critical contact details for those closest to them; and suggest a direct link between data available at the click of a button and a failure to commit that data to memory.”

I am happy to report that I do fairly well compared to the run-of-the-mill European. Across Europe, 53 percent could call their children without looking up their numbers. In the UK, 45 percent could remember their home phone number from when they were 10, but only 29 could now remember their children’s numbers. In the UK, 51 percent knew their partner’s phone number, compared with almost 80% in Italy, perhaps because their partners were better cooks.

Neuroscientists and others have been studying how new technology affects the brain’s memory power for quite awhile. Apparently, new technology can change our old brains quickly.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average human attention span was 12 seconds in 2000. Not it’s 8.25 seconds. A goldfish has a 9 second attention span – if by some chance you’re still paying attention.

A paper that came out in Science magazine in 2011 popularized the idea of the Google Effect: just knowing that some bit of data or lump of information can be easily found by Google (or whatever) reduces our likelihood that we’ll remember it after we find it.

“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found,” the paper said. “This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information, although the disadvantages of being constantly ‘wired’ are still being debated.”

The effects of gadgets on memory is only one front in that debate – and properly so. This is how that 2011 report on the Google Effect concluded: “The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.”

That’s creepy. The Internet isn’t my friend.

But most of us know by now the panicky feeling being isolated and cut-off when we forgot to bring our iPhone – our mobile brain outsourcing device. We’ve all seen people who can’t put their devices away for more than a minute before they get twitchy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at dinner, a meeting, a party or a walk. It is not a disease of the young, and the worst offenders I know are middle-aged “digital amnesiacs” like me.

Americans believe in the power of our new technologies to make life better. The rationalism, start-up spirit and wholesome unconventionality of Silicon Valley is contagious. If there is a Luddite movement, it is quiet.

But there is also a dizzying amount of research going on about the effects of communications technology on our brains, nervous systems, social abilities, relationships, mental health, physical health and family structure. You name it and there’s probably a neuroscientist or a sociologist on the case. And that’s a good thing.

A number of writers have written accessible, serious books that draw from all this new research to push back against the digital utopianism we are so susceptible to: Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff and Sherry Turkle among them.

They’ve convinced me to be much for mindful about my screen-time and cognitive day. I try to follow a slow media diet – when I can remember, that is.

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