What’s happening to our memories?
How’s your memory doing? Are you finding it increasingly difficult to remember things? How about spelling words, your family’s cellphone numbers or anniversaries and birthdays? After all, why would you bother to remember all these things when the whole world is at your fingertips? I think we all know who to blame – the internet, smartphones, apps, Google and the list goes on. Put simply, we have outsourced our memories. We no longer need to repeat things, but repetition is how we build lasting memories. In the pre-internet world, remembering items played a much more critical role in our lives. Before the advent of writing, humans passed on the histories of their tribes and families by telling stories that they had memorized.
Neuroscientist Manfried Spitzer coined the term “digital dementia” to describe how overuse of digital technology breaks down our cognitive abilities. Spitzer believes that our short-term memory pathways begin to deteriorate when we overuse technology. Can you remember important telephone numbers? Or do you rely on speed dial? Can you still read a map? Or do you rely on GPS? I know I’m guilty as charged. But guess what, some researchers say that our long-term memories are suffering from this. Can you recall information or do you immediately turn to Google? And when you’ve looked it up, do you bother to remember it? And so what, you might be thinking now. Well, researchers say that forcing yourself to recall information instead of relying on technology to provide it for us is a way to create and strengthen our permanent memories.
Accomplished storytellers could memorize hundreds of thousands of lines of verse, such as the Mahābhārata (one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India), which contains 200,000 verses. Another example is the Quran (which consists of 114 units of varying lengths called suras) and literally means “The Recitation.” Most scholars agree that Homer’s “Iliad” was originally an orally performed poem and ancient Celts were known for recalling thousands of stories and poems. As more and more people learned how to read, we began to rely less on our memories. Whereas we used to remember loads of valuable information, today, we’re hard-pressed to remember URLs and passwords. Well, at least I am. It seems like I’ve got more passwords to remember than ever.
Some information seems to stand the test of time. Take music, for example. After hearing a few notes, it usually doesn’t take long to recall the lyrics to an old song that you haven’t heard in years. Research as shown that “people suffering from dementia can sometimes instantaneously recall songs from their childhood,” which might be why boomers can remember The Beatles’ songs but not your name. Another way we learn and remember is through experiencing trauma, like touching a lit flame or running your finger down the edge of a knife. Emotions also play a massive role in what we recall. For example, I will never forget the man’s first landing on the moon, the birth of my children, the fall of the Soviet Union or the horror of 9/11.
New evidence has shown that hurt feelings are worse than physical pain. That’s right, you are much more likely to remember painful emotional experiences than those involving physical pain. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” said Maya Angelou, an American poet, singer, memoirist and civil rights activist. A recent study suggests that the reason we remember bad memories in greater detail than good ones could be evolutionary. “These benefits make sense within an evolutionary framework,” according to Elizabeth Kensinger of Boston College, who published a review of research on the topic in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “It’s logical that attention would be focused on potentially threatening information as an evolutionary tactic to protect against future life-threatening or negative events,” says Kensinger.
Sleep is essential for memory
It seems that we memorize better in short bursts, and because it takes time to remember, sleeping between studying periods serves to commit information to memory. Of course, we might ask ourselves how much we can remember in today’s 24/7 information-saturated society where we get less sleep than ever. The more time you spend online, the more you train your brain to seek novelty, switching from site to site. Clicking aimlessly around the web will leave you drained and tired. Moreover, researchers aren’t sure how much information we retain while surfing mindlessly. You’re much more likely to remember ideas and words when you generate them yourself. It’s the same benefit we get from exercising muscles. When you work to retain information, you recall it much better.
The cost of social platforms
Today, we share just about everything on social media, from vacation experiences to special family moments. And yes, before you protest, I agree that social media enables us to form new relationships with people we’ve never met and keep in touch with old friends. I use them as much as anyone. But is using social platforms costing us something we haven’t considered? A new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that people who used social platforms to share and document experiences “formed less precise memories of those events.” It seems that where we place our attention defines what we learn and remember, so if all we can remember are passwords and the like, do we really need a memory today? Now that’s a scary thought!