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Can Technology Affect our Memory?

I get asked by the participants of my Wits Fitness Brain Training classes "how is technology today affecting our children's memory or ability to remember?" Good question. In the Wits Fitness classes, we do many activities that "exercise" memory and recall – all without the assistance of the Internet. Challenging your brain to think is one of the major ways we can keep our brains healthy and our memory sharp. So when you ask your grandchild a question and without thinking, they whip out their smartphone and tell you they will Google it – we wonder how exactly are they challenging themselves and building better brains.

I recently found an article on that examined what they called the "Google Effect" or "digital amnesia" which is when our brains will not remember a piece of information because we know where we can easily find it. Why make the effort to remember something that you can look up on your phone in a few seconds? We don't remember phone numbers anymore. We can't recall a route we drove because we used GPS.

Researchers say that if you spend time trying to retrieve information from your memory first, rather than look it up, you are more likely to remember it later. The very act of retrieving memory strengthens the synapses that connect our brain cells or neurons to each other. They also add that the more information or facts in your brain, the more chances for a creative idea or invention. Just looking things up can disrupt daydreaming, introspecting, and problem-solving – which are all very important cognitive functions that humans need.

It is said that people check their phones an average of 46 times a day. So another consequence of the "Google Effect" is continuous partial attention. That constant competition for our attention means that we don't dive deep into any one task at a time. And according to the article, people spend an average of just three to five minutes working at their computer before they switch to another website, some form of social media or app on their phone. Our brains are continuously distracted and the effort to resist distractions requires significant mental resources. If the brain is trying to resist distractions, it is having a hard time processing what you really want to accomplish.

There is no doubt that smartphones and the "Google Effect" are affecting memory, focus and creativity, but the long-term effects are still unclear. In the meantime, we can all work on becoming more mindful when it comes to technology. Just a few simple suggestions include:

  • Closing e-mail and other programs while working on a task or project
  • Have family put away phones during agreed upon times like meals and homework
  • Practice mindfulness meditation techniques – focusing on being in the present moment
  • Have children challenge their minds in alternate ways, like board games, cards, and learning new hobbies or skills
  • Get the whole family outside and enjoy nature! Leave the phones in the car and enjoy some green space