The Spectator Magazine cover story for August 13th, 2016 by Lara Prendergast discusses the effect that technology has on our memories. Prendergast states, “I’m 26, yet I feel I have the memory of a 70-year-old. My brain is a port through which details pass, but don’t stay.” She goes on to say, “Many young people feel our memories have been shot to pieces. It’s the embarrassing secret of my generation”.
The assertion is that with the internet and smartphones being so ubiquitous, tech savvy ‘twenty-somethings’ are increasingly outsourcing memory to web searches. The article states, “We know that when we reach to remember any detail — a route, a phrase, a historical fact — our minds do not perform at the critical moment. So we reach instead for our phones, which are much more trustworthy.” The typical cellphone user touches his or her phone on average 2,617 times every day, according to a study by research firm Dscout. It isn't just touch, as technology gets ever more sophisticated we ask the likes of Siri and Alexa to answer even the simplest of questions for us.
The internet holds virtually all human knowledge so surely it makes perfect sense to tap into that resource to find a definitive answer to any question. It must be more accurate than any one person’s knowledge. This is a very convincing and seductive argument with four massively damaging consequences.
Firstly, blind trust in Wikipedia and search engine results can be dangerous. It is often difficult to distinguish between fake news, incorrect facts and useful information. In 2007, television theme-tune composer, Ronnie Hazlehurst, died after a stroke aged 79. In hastily written obituaries, many respected newspapers including The Times and The Guardian fell foul of a Wikipedia hoax which had him credited with a late career turn by composing S Club 7's hit ‘Reach’.
If you insidiously allow newsfeeds and social media to be shaped around your existing opinions these become reinforced, largely unchallenged, leading to what can be a narrow, sometimes skewed, world view.
Secondly, the mind is like a muscle that needs stretching to remain strong. Without stimulation it will atrophy. Using your memory provides an ideal workout for your little grey cells. Just as an unhealthy body is more prone to disease, so an unhealthy mind becomes open to Alzheimer's disease and other forms of mental degeneration. This can even occur before the onset of old age.
Thirdly, as identified by Prendergast in the article, “It may well be that memory is more spiritual than we like to admit. By using our minds, we nourish a part of us that goes beyond the physical. Equally, by storing memory outside of ourselves on a piece of technology, we lose something fundamental.”
Fourthly, and I believe even more vital, is the interconnectedness of knowledge. The brain needs connections and associations to function. Creativity and innovation are vital to keep up with the pace of the modern world. If you access facts online and don’t take the time to memorise any of them, they become discrete, disconnected and lacking context.
The synergistic nature of the brain means that it can take a collection of elements, synthesise and connect them to come up with new ideas. The whole is greater then the sum of the parts. If you only ever have one part at a time you cannot synergise. Is it any wonder that your brain feels malnourished?
The solution is to take some time to rediscover the art of memory. Learn mnemonic techniques. Instead of a knee jerk response to Google something immediately, try to think about the question and see if you can deduce or recall the answer. If you draw a blank, only then search the internet, consulting multiple sources to ensure accuracy. Take a note (ideally in Mind Map form) of the answer plus any relevant, additional information. You can easily commit this to memory by making use of spaced reviews. Look over your Mind Map at the following intervals: after 10 minutes, one day, a week, a month and 3 to 6 months. After five reviews the information is transferred to long term memory. This allows related information to be connected and absorbed more easily in future.
As time progresses you will be less and less reliant on technology. You will be more confident in your own mental abilities and as you’re exercising your brain it will quickly regain its strength. The article cites poet Ted Hughes’ advice to learn poetry as mental exercise. I totally agree that this is very worthwhile. Thinking about the metaphors and meaning in a poem is a stimulating mental workout and can also be fun.
I’m not a Luddite and love technology. Google is your friend but beware, it can also be a sly enemy.