Remember when you knew phone numbers off by heart? There would be at least 25 of your friends, your parents’ work, probably your school, your grandparents, the cinema along with your uncles and aunties. There would be 50 or 100 sequences of numbers which you could recall in an instant.
Did you have a particularly good memory? No. Everybody did it out of necessity. We were born into a world where that’s what was needed to be done and our brains stepped up to the challenge.
Are our brains different today? No. We could easily do it if the necessity was there, but ‘smart’ phones give us the capacity to carry thousands of phone numbers and we only have to remember one: our own.
So what else is our brain doing to stay sharp?
Well. There’s cat videos.
Not really surprisingly, there’s also an emergence of a new memory dysfunction called digital dementia.
Real dementia, uninvited, is a tragedy for everyone involved. Anything remotely resembling that which can be avoided, should be, particularly if we have children in our care.
Manufacturers of digital products do issue warnings but they’re not ever going to ask us directly to make a choice. Profits versus your health?
No judgement but we have an Xbox, DSs, laptops and smartphones in our home. These have come with avoidable angst and anxiety but we endure, as do many families groaning under the weight of FOMO (fear of missing out).
But what are we missing out on really?
There’s the rush to bring our school classrooms into the 21st century, which has come with its own problems and was the subject of debate at the EduTech Conference held last month.
A visiting cognitive scientist from King’s College London Professor Guy Claxton spoke of not arguing over technology but focussing on whether technology steers kids towards curious, critical thinking or just dumbs them down.
Kids’ brains learn at certain speeds and hand writing ideas actually isn’t slowing them down but shaping thoughtful cognitive processes.
Developing the ability in children to think, yes, but repeatedly clicking on buttons to express their thinking as a form of ‘learning’ depletes the ability to write, which is an expression of the human mind evolved over millennia with great results.
Forget how to do that... enter digital dementia.
Digital dementia is a phrase that was coined in 2012 by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer who explained the neural pathways of memory are laid down during the process of handwriting.
Lotze studied the brains of novice writers and expert writers’ brains to learn what the brain looks like when engaged in a writing activity.
Writers were asked to make up their own stories, as opposed to copying something down, lighting up the occipital lobe which helps with visualisation. This meant subjects were using their imagination and literally seeing the scenes in their head.
Then when they began creating their story, the hippocampus joined in, offering up facts, plots and organising ideas.
When it came to studying the expert writers, Lotze found they used a different part of their brain again; the caudate nucleus which handles automatic functions.
For expert writers, the automation of their task wasn’t just old memories like how to shape letters and words, but also years of learned technique in story creation.
The Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain were also more active compared to novice writers.
The outcome of the study in layman’s terms could well be described as “use it or lose it.”
Scientists at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, South Korea have released a study demonstrating problems with short-term memory in teens and adults due to overuse of smartphones.
The claim is that heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side underdeveloped. Why? The need to memorise new information is fading fast.
It isn’t news either that cocaine, opiates or methamphetamines utilise the same dopamine functions in the brain as the over stimulation from technology which cultures addictive behaviour and opens doors to potentially long-term issues.
If devices are here to stay, how do we get along and not lay our brains on the alters of convenience?
Experts say minimise exposure to three hours a day, take lots of breaks, sit up straight (posture affects the brain), exercise and shut down your Wi-Fi modem and router before sleeping as you don’t need the radiation when you’re not even using your device.
Now, do you think you’ll remember all that?
Yvette Aubusson-Foley is a Dubbo journo, who spent time living and raising her family in the USA, but has now returned to her home town.