Is Digital Amnesia Real?By
The disagreement among psychologists and neuroscientists over the seriousness of the problem is growing, but few doubt that our outsourcing of memory and certain cognitive functions to our digital devices is becoming more measurable. Whether that’s leading to a new digital category of amnesia is still uncertain.
The outward signs are there with the insistence on more memory on our next smartphone and the absence of traditional maps in glove compartments becoming more universal, but now the interior evidence from MRI imagery and specific testing is raising concerns. In a July 3, 2022, article in The Guardian, Rebecca Seal pointed out that we’re clearly aware of the problem. She wrote, “Of those surveyed by memory researcher Catherine Loveday in 2021, 80% felt that their memories were worse than before the pandemic.” Seal connected this to the “smartphonification” of life, begun 20 years ago and now accelerated due to increased internet use during COVID-19. “Before smartphones,” she explained, “our heads would have held a cache of phone numbers and our memories would contain a cognitive map, built up over time, which would allow us to navigate—for smartphone users, that is no longer true.” This raises the question: Are we now so reliant on our devices that it will change how our memories work?
In Seal’s article, neurobiology professor Oliver Hardt of McGill University described a potentially destructive cycle: “Once you stop using your memory it will get worse, which makes you use your devices even more.” He also warned that our prolonged use of GPS instead of maps, which actively engage our spatial reasoning, “likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus” where spatial behaviors are processed. “Map reading is hard…. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures that have other effects on your general cognitive functioning.”
Another disturbing neurological study cited by Seal found changes in the brains of 10-year-olds. Using paper and pencil tests and an MRI, an ABCD (adolescent brain cognitive development) study that tracked 10,000 American children showed a relationship between tech use and cortical thinning. “Young children who use more tech had a thinner cortex, which is supposed to happen at an older age,” said Larry Rosen, who studies social media, technology, and the brain. Thinning, Seal explains, “is a normal part of growing up and then ageing.”
And a further problem created by smartphones is the state of constant distraction coming from notifications, texts, social media, and the anxiety of FOMO (fear of missing out). Science writer Catherine Price, in Seal’s article, called this a state of “continual partial attention.” Not only does this obstruct present awareness, but it also “impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage.”
THE CONTRARY VIEW
Chris Bird, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sussex where he runs research by the Episodic Memory Group, explained in Seal’s article, “We have always offloaded things into external devices, like writing down notes, and that’s enabled us to have more complex lives. I don’t have a problem with using external devices to augment our thought processes or memory processes. We’re doing it more, but that frees up time to concentrate, focus on and remember other things.”
Bird isn’t alone cautioning against overreaction. Daniel Schacter, a member of Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, published “Media, technology, and the sins of memory” in July 2021. In it, he addressed the impact of media and technology on what he calls four memory sins: transience (forgetting over time), absent-mindedness (lapses in attention that produce forgetting), misattribution (attributing a memory to the wrong source), and suggestibility (implanted memories), along with growing concerns about the negative impact of media and technology on memory.
Schacter admitted, “Negative impacts have been documented, but they are mostly what I have called process-specific effects, with limited evidence of domain-specific [far-reaching] effects and no evidence for domain-general effects [damage to overall memory processes]. Moreover, some positive impacts have also been documented…. Thus, we should approach broad claims about the damaging effects of technology and media on memory with caution.” The 15-page paper deserves serious consideration.
These are just a few representative speculations of where the controversy is now. Expect the dialogue to get more complicated going forward, especially in those areas of AI development where machine encroachment becomes even more humanized.