Forgetful? Train your brain

Rewon Shimray | Cartoonist

The increased popularity of voice-activated operating systems like Alexa and Siri is due in part to our desire to have unlimited information at our fingertips. The commercials for products like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home emphasize their ability to answer any question the user might have. How many cups are in a gallon? What’s the name of that actress that starred in that one movie? Who sings that one song I like?

Despite the clear benefits to having immediate access to information simply by saying “OK Google” and asking a question, the shift in the way we obtain knowledge may have devastating long-term effects.

Asking the internet our most burning questions may immediately satisfy our curiosity research suggests this doesn’t mean users retain the information they seek. While older generations had to memorize facts like addresses, business hours and dates, the digital age has lessened the necessity of remembering in this way. We can look up the answer to a question without worrying about retaining the information, knowing we can find it again with a simple Google search anytime we want.

German neuroscience Manfred Spitzer calls this phenomenon “digital dementia.” Digital dementia encompasses the loss of some cognitive abilities like short term memory as a result of under-utilized memory processing skills.

A 2011 study by the department of psychology at Columbia University found that when people know they will have access to information in the future, they have a decreased ability to recall that information later on. In this way, if our brains are the internal hard drive of a computer, internet searches have become the limitless flash drive that holds the majority of our information externally.

Instead of going straight to Siri and other search engines when we forget something, we need to exercise our brains to find the facts we know but can’t immediately recall. This is an especially good exercise if you are in a group with your friends. Try to remember the name of that TV show or the author of that book rather than taking to Google right away. It might take a little longer and lead to some minor frustration at the inability to satisfy curiosity instantaneously, but the more we exercise our brains the more we protect ourselves from the harmful effects of under-utilized memory processing.

Sometimes, training your brain to recall facts can mean swapping out an iPad for a book. An analysis of research by Scientific American suggests the people comprehend and retain information better on paper than on screens. Try picking up a dictionary or thesaurus instead of looking up synonyms and definitions online. You might have an easier time remembering the new word for future use.

In addition, many of us rely on GPS technology to get us everywhere from our friend’s house to that new restaurant across town. When it comes to directions, try to memorize maps as they appear from aerial view as well as the actual streets and landmarks as you see them from your car. Living in a small town like Waco, with its easy-to-follow numerical street system should negate the need for Google Maps on most occasions.

For more brain exercise, try buying a puzzle book or download a memory app like Luminosity.

Whatever strategies you implement, engage your memory processing and focus on retaining information, even if it is obtained from an online search engine. All too often we treat the internet like an external memory drive instead of cultivating the memory processing resources within our own brains.