By: Jamie Morton
So-called “digital dementia” could be harming our brains more than we realise.
The term describes how the overuse of technology can significantly affect our attention, memory and emotional development.
Researchers have raised particular concern for children growing up in a tech-saturated world.
One new US study found the amount of time under-2s spend staring at screens every day has leapt from 1.3 hours in 1997 to more than three hours.
In that case, the culprit was mostly TV: but studies have also highlighted the cognitive risks from too much time spent looking at phones, or playing video games.
Auckland clinician and counsellor Dr Allison Lamont, said while the area was still being researched, it was the effects on working memory that appeared to be the biggest worry.
“Working memory is concerned with attention, concentration and the short-term retention of needed information such as addresses.”
She pointed out another US study that found a quarter of 30-year-olds couldn’t remember their own phone number.
“Problems with working memory can impair a person’s ability to pay attention or to accomplish multi-step tasks.”
Studies were also showing that the sheer amount of distraction created by digital media affected the transferring of information into long-term memory, needed for later recall.
“In the digital culture we are trying to process too much too quickly, and the result can be processing very little, indeed,” she said.
“Relying of the push of a button to supply our information negates the need of memorising, and memory is definitely a process of ‘use it or lose it’.”
Lamont’s own PhD study at the University of Auckland investigated memory across the adult lifespan from 20 years of age into the very late 90s.
She said it became apparent six types of memory were vital for independence as we age: verbal memory, nonverbal memory, working memory, face recognition, and prospective memory – or the ability to remember to do things later in the absence of reminders.
People who remained socially engaged and interested in what was going on around them, and who participated in activities, ate well and exercised even moderately, generally fared much better during the ageing process.
“The understanding that our brain health, as in our physical health, is in our own hands to a great extent liberates us from buying into the myth that once we reach 50 years of age we are on a slide into the abyss as far as memory is concerned,” she said.
“It is simply not true.”
When she graduated, Lamont and her sister, former principal and speech therapist Gillian Eadie, came up with an idea to help others.
In the classes, participants are taught strategies to help memory function, and to improve their lifestyle.
“Feeling in control is so important, and we are very glad to give the understanding that ageing does not mean a one-way slide in forgetting and memory lapses,” Eadie said.
“We can take control of our own memory health. It’s important to differentiate the difference between helping people experiencing the normal changes of memory which come as we age, and those with a developing brain pathology.”
Eadie said it was vital that, as people grew older, they took responsibility to keep their minds healthy.
“Quite apart from ageing, younger and younger people are concerned with their own memory difficulties – from being unable to remember what happens in a work meeting to being unable to handle the enormous amount of information they are expected to assimilate at work,” she said.
“In a way, we are back where we started – the danger of technology’s demands.
“It is all too easy to outsource our memory and rely on our phone or computer to remember for us.”
Five tips to help your memory
• Pay attention to what you need to remember: Don’t expect to remember if you have glanced at, or half-listened, to something for a second or so. You need to concentrate for seven seconds if you want to remember something later.
• Attach “memory traces” to what you want to recall: Connecting new information to something you already know in as many ways as possible is the key to recalling something later on. The more memory traces, the more chances you have to retrieve those lost keys, glasses or wallets.
• Revisit new information: To be sure you know something, revisit the information five times. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist in the 19th century, was the first person to document how easily we forget information.
• Organise your surroundings: Use one diary and put everything in there so that you are not looking through several places each time you want to check something. Establish places for all of the items that you regularly lose, and use them. Have hooks for your keys and a drawer for your wallet, mobile, glasses and diary. All of these items need a defined place where you put them, and concentrate while you place them there.
• Help your brain: Use post-it notes, lists and alerts on your phone or computer. Whatever you choose will be creating memory traces in your brain as you devise the reminders.
Source: The Memory Foundation. For more on Brain Awareness Week 2019, visit www.brainweek.co.nz