Digital Amnesia: New Insight on How Smartphones May Be Messing With Our Brains

If you're having trouble remembering things, there is a great chance that your smartphone may be to blame.
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Despite the amount of knowledge scientists have on the brain, memory as we know it remains uncharted territory. For example, scientists still find it hard to explain memory lapses where an individual fails to remember a meeting date but can recall scenes from a movie they watched over three years ago.

While these lapses are often blamed on modern technology, it leaves us wondering if the usage of tech gadgets has overtaken some basic functions we’d ordinarily perform with our brain. Perhaps the extensive functionalities of smartphones are the main problem – we now rely on our phones to set alerts before we can remember an appointment. This simple task could’ve been accomplished with a retentive memory.

Meanwhile, evaluating our degree of memory retention before the invention of smartphones is key to understanding the effects of smartphones (adverse or favorable) in our daily life. Before and during the early 2000s, there was no means of saving appointment dates and events unless one wanted to write out details of the appointment in a physical calendar. Even then, our brain had its own cache, storing phone numbers and important dates whenever necessary. More so, our brain needed to be its own cognitive map for navigation; even with paper maps, there had to be a level of brain work that’s no longer relevant today where things are seamless with a GPS device.

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The involvement of smartphones in our lives has risen geometrically since the mid-2000s. Overall, interaction with phones and gadgets also increased exponentially during the pandemic and lockdown – a period that left us to the mercy of contents gotten from the internet, which was both used for getting information and temporarily escaping the tragedy ravaging the world. Little wonder why prolonged periods of stress, isolation, and exhaustion have been commonplace in most people’s lives since March 2020.

In 2021, memory researcher Prof. Catherine Loveday a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster, London, conducted research on the possibility of lockdown causing passing memory loss. Her results show that about 55% of the participants in the survey reported mild instances of memory loss or simply forgetting when something happened. More so, over 80% of the participants said that they feel that their memories, or ability to recall memories worsened more than usual before the pandemic.

While that’s the case, the covid-19 pandemic taking its toll is just a fraction of the problem. The current economic and political crisis ravaging the globe is a much heavier burden. Thus, to mitigate the bad experience, we turn to distractions like social media. At the same time, endless scrolling (especially “doomscrolling”) equally has its problems. More so, unexpected phone notifications which interrupt our activities can have an adverse effect on our memory retention.

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In any case, it remains unclear what exactly happens when we transfer some of the tasks we ordinarily expect our brain to perform to a smartphone. Is it a more efficient method of handling tasks? Allowing us to clear our brains so we can focus more on the challenges of life. Or is dependence on smart devices the key cause of our memory retention problem? Or maybe it’s normal to forget or miss some things at times.

Negligence and distraction also plays its part in memory retention failure

In 2010, Professor Barbara Sahakian FMedSci experimented to evaluate the effect of distraction on reading abilities. The experiment involved three groups, each asked to perform simple reading tasks.

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One group was sent an instant message (with notifications on) before the reading commenced, another received a message during the reading exercise, and the last group wasn’t sent any message before and during the reading test only. Observation from the results shows that people who got instant messages on their smartphones before and during the test couldn’t recall what they read barely minutes after.

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Perpetual distraction by phones does more harm to our memories that just helping to make things easier. Tech expert Linda Stone refers to this as ‘continual partial attention.’ She believes that unlike what’s normally advertised – smartphones free us up to do more; in real life, this isn’t true. We often spend most of our free time consuming irrelevant content on social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram. More so, if the boomers, gen X, and millennial generations were stuck on their phones during their early days, they may not have used their brains for the inventions we benefit from today.

Meanwhile, these are mere speculations because there was no measurement of human IQ and creativity before the emergence of smartphones. While that’s the case, many experts believe perpetual distraction by phones reduces our ability to be insightful. An insightful person can think and connect two unrelated concepts. Consequently, to be insightful and creative requires raw material in your brain, which is long-term memories – and continuous partial attention doesn’t allow us to have that.

Excessive use of smartphones may have permanent effects on the brain

Ongoing research at ABCD Study, which involves tracking over 10,000 American children through adulthood, suggests that smartphone use can change the brain. One of the researchers involved, Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychologist who studies social media and technology and their relationship with the brain, explains that the observation started by examining 10-year-olds both with paper and pencils and then MRI.

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According to him, the most interesting result was the relationship between tech and cortical thinning. Young children who used more tech had thinner cortex – a characteristic that is supposed to develop at an older age. Cortical thinning is a normal feature associated with growth and aging. Although normal, it can be associated with degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and migraines in older individuals. 

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Unfortunately, the use of smartphones has become an integral part of our daily life. It’s linked to our finances, used to sort out schedules, sometimes even used for some office operations and storing documents – it’s hard to see an adult without one. However, there’s a serious worry about what it can do to our memory.

In one of Rosen’s books “My favorites are tech breaks,” he explains how one can effectively minimize time spent with smartphones and other tech devices. If you have to use your device, set a 15-minute alarm, when it goes off, set your phone aside with the face upside down, and let yourself have a 1-minute tech break. Continue the routine till your mind adapts to a 15-minute focus time, then you can increase it to 20. You know you’re successful if you can get to 60-minutes focus time with short tech breaks within.

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While memory retention can get worse because of factors like age, nature of the job, and household, excessive screen time is also a factor that shouldn’t be ignored.