Learning in the Digital Age

Mobile PhoneIs your phone making you forgetful? by Drew Turney

The ultra-connectivity of our modern society is causing a wholesale shift in the way we retain information in our heads.

Where most of history up until this point has been a process of wielding tools to remember things for us (everything from scratches on papyrus to the PC), we’re now entering an age where we don’t really have to remember anything. Technology connects us instantly to every piece of information we need to conduct our lives – from the names on the Declaration of Independence to your anniversary.

But as a growing chorus is asking, what’s that doing to our on-board memories? In an age where we don’t we have to remember anything, will we forget how?

The changes wrought on our memory by technology have already been documented. Last year researchers from Columbia University studied the effect of using Google on human memory. According to the prescient findings, we’re better at remembering where to go to look up information than we are at remembering the information itself. Subjects in the study were also more likely to forget some factoid when they knew they had the means to search for it later online.

So it seems our brain has a reflex – if we know we can rely on distributed cognition or transactive memory (the web, other members of the tribe, etc), our instinct is not to bother remembering it at the time.

Motifs and markers

It seems to make sense that keeping conceptual shorthand on instant recall that leads to the deeper abstract thought means you don’t have to fill your mind up with every discrete snippet of information.

Which leads to the next seemingly obvious conclusion. When we know we have constant access to all that bit-and-byte style stuff like phone numbers or your iTunes store password, can we relegate it to the networks and hard drives of the world and leave our heads clearer for deeper creative thought? It certainly feels that way – trying to internalize the torrent of data that characterizes our age leaves us mentally exhausted.

Or will we – in not bothering to remember stuff – lose the ability to remember altogether?

The first thing to remember is that the brain is not a computer we can overfill. The short-term memory certainly is – something you can easily prove to yourself by trying to remember a lengthy string of digits.

But Ian Robertson, psychologist and author of The Winner Effect, calls the permutations of connectivity in the long-term memory ‘almost infinite’. “The more you learn, the more you can learn,” he says. “More things connect to other aspects of your memory and that makes you more skilled at storing and pulling them out.”

Of course, there’s a reason why memory works the way it does, and it’s completely different from saving a document on a computer or sending contact details to the cloud. Even the simplest memories are contextualized with emotion – it’s often the only reason we remember things at all. Your insurance company’s 1800 number is going to mean something very different to you than the time you and your first crush stopped at the top of the ferris wheel, for example.

So it might be that using the networks and search engines of the world as our ‘external hard drive’ is just an extension of the pen and paper, the printing press or any number of other recording technologies we’ve used since the rise of language.

We’re happy to relegate simple stuff to computers and cell phones, but few of us would volunteer to have the memory of our child’s birth or our first home run digitized and removed to make more space in our long-term memory – even if we could carry it around on a USB stick. We unconsciously keep the memories that mean something.

More than just facts

But there’s another higher dimension to memory. Unlike computers, human minds aren’t just file repositories. Survival has always depended on two things – the facts about ourselves and the environment, and the ability to make sense of those facts and weave them into everyday existence. A computer can remember everything we tell it, but it can’t suddenly say ‘hey, that guy you have in your contacts might be able to help you with this project you’re working on’ – the ability to pick out patterns is a uniquely organic talent.

Qualities and abilities like ‘knowing’, ‘creativity’ and ‘problem solving’ might also work better when the information is inside somewhere. If we have to go to the outside world to complete the picture, who knows what resources we’re taking away from the ‘answer’ and ‘idea’ engines?

Something else we’re extremely good at is being discriminating about what matters on the fly. Everything you put into a computer – from your online banking access to a forgettable Instagram snap – is given equal weight.

If something has an urgent effect on our survival like a snarling sabertooth or a report for a fearsome CEO, we give it the focus and attention it warrants. Sustained attention on something moves it past the memory acquisition apparatus of the brain (hippocampus), and stores it effectively in long-term memory along with countless other mental artefacts, all of them colored with emotional perspectives.

Of course, today we’re given a lot more stuff to acquire, sort, file and action, and we’ve barely started to ask ourselves how that’s changing our brain in the longer term.

There’s little question that the constant bombardment of information in the modern age affects our ability to retain it in the short term. Tony Schwartz, productivity expert and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, likened the brain to a glass of water when he spoke to the Huffington Post in 2013.

‘It’s like having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down. We’re constantly losing the information that’s just come in – we’re constantly replacing it, and there’s no place to hold what you’ve already gotten.’

Worse still, taking so much information in such a piecemeal fashion – the way digital technologies deliver it by their very nature – might further restrict our ability to put it all together meaningfully. As Harvard physics professor John Edward Huth wrote in the New York Times last year, ‘Sadly, we often atomize knowledge into pieces that don’t have a home in a larger conceptual framework. When this happens, we surrender meaning to guardians of knowledge and it loses its personal value.’

Biologically, we evolve very slowly. The way we remember information now isn’t much different than the way we did when we threw spears at woolly mammoths. The difference today is how much information we’re exposed to. The brain was never designed to synthesize so much so quickly and effectively retain or discard it as needed.

Still, Stephen Peterson, MD, Chair, Department of Psychiatry, Medstar Washington Hospital Center reminds us that the internet isn’t functionally different from what we’ve always done. “Our new ‘just a click away’ knowledge base is a tremendous plus,” he says. “After all, we’ve always kept lists.”

But he points out that the harder the task to acquire knowledge, the better the chance we’ll retain it. “Having to go to all the trouble to research something using the skills we developed prior to the Internet certainly did involve us developing a changed perception about the importance of the information,” he says.

The final major difference between silicon and biological memory is that while the former doesn’t need time off to work better when we need it, the latter definitely does (which we forget at our peril).

With even more to take in, Peterson means we need to address our brains’ needs to wind down and do the sorting exercise in its own time more than ever before.

“Do whatever gives us relief,” he says. “Watch movies, read, exercise, shop, work in the garden, get proper rest. These common sense solutions will help when the world gets too much for us.”

Getting the best performance out of your memory

Mentally exhausted? Worried about your memory performance in the onslaught of the digital age? As well as switching off and unplugging every now and then, here are some strategies to help keep your memory nimble, even in the face of advancing years.

Sleep after learning

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame gave a group of students declarative memory tests (the ability to remember facts and events), some at 9am and some at 9pm.

They retested the participants 30 minutes, 12 hours or 24 hours later, and the 12 hours tests showed that the 9pm group – who’d slept after the tests – retained more. The difference appeared to be that they’d slept after the testing, so giving your brain time to do what it does when you sleep helps ‘bed down’ whatever you’ve just absorbed.

Get more hobbies

Columbia University College doctors found people with more than six physical, social or intellectual hobbies (anything from walking to crosswords or lunch with friends) were 38 percent less likely to develop dementia, with the risk decreasing by a further eight percent for each additional hobby.

It works because the fresh neural connections formed as you take in something new can bolster what’s called cognitive reserve, your brain’s ability to resist memory loss. Learning a new language is a particularly powerful defense.

Be happy

The fuzzy-mindedness and lack of focus depression can cause is bad enough, but it also stops the brain from bathing its own machinery with the right chemicals for optimum performance.

Positive moods trigger the release of dopamine and other ‘reward’ hormones in the brain in areas related to memory, so a good wash-down with the right neurohormones might fortify your memory-making machinery.

A medical journal reported in 2013 that adults who experienced positive emotions experienced improvements in their memory by around 19 percent.