The Hamilton Spectator
How we can combat ‘digital amnesia’
Remember when we used to have to remember things? Things like phone numbers, world capitals, poems or, perhaps, the periodic table of elements?
Now, no matter where we are, we can look those things up on the computers we carry in our pockets. That might be a good thing. Maybe we can use that space in our brain for something more useful than the knowledge that “K” stands for potassium. Some people, though, are starting to associate smartphone use with “digital amnesia” or decreased memory skills.
“With everything in nature and the human body, if you don’t use it you will lose it; it’s very simple,” said Oliver Hardt, a behavioural neuroscientist in McGill University’s department of psychology. “It’s very simple. It’s the same for the mind and the memory and attention, all these other things we take for granted.”
Hardt, whose research at the McGill Memory Lab aims to understand how the brain forgets, says there are a number of things about smartphone use that might be eroding our memory skills, one of which is divided attention.
“One of the main factors is a loss of the ability to concentrate and focus. This has been largely driven by the fact that smartphones constantly emit signals that disrupt our concentration,” Hardt said, referring to the notifications we get every time someone likes our latest Insta-post. “If you constantly switch focus, the new thing makes it harder to remember the thing you were just doing.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that, for most people, multi-tasking doesn’t work. But since smartphones aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, we need to find ways to use them better. One obvious starting point is turning off most — or all — of our notifications.
It’s not just that divided attention that’s a problem, though. Sadly, our cameras, which are many people’s favourite feature, might also be a culprit in digital amnesia.
“There’s a lot of evidence that using your phone to take pictures or videos of an event makes your memory worse,” said Morgan Barense, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and Canada research chair in cognitive neuroscience. “That’s because of something called cognitive off-loading. Since you took a picture, you don’t have to focus on remembering it.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case when people used film. Since film was expensive, most people judiciously chose what they wanted to capture. We lined our shots up carefully and paid attention to the composition. Phone cameras promote mindless photography. We take bad photos of anything, and have confidence that editing tools will fix any problems — assuming we ever look at that picture again.
Barense and a team of memory researchers at U of T have been working on a fix for this: an app that could “flip the script” so we could use our phones to actually fight digital amnesia.
Named after the hippocampus (the part of the brain that plays a big role in learning and memory) the HippoCamera app encourages the user to have a more mindful relationship with their camera. It has been shown to help people remember 50 per cent more details from events.
It starts with intention. Instead of randomly taking photos throughout the day, you choose one event that you’re going to document in advance, even if it’s something pretty mundane like, say, taking your cat to the vet’s office. When you get there, you create an eight-second audio clip explaining why this is important to you. Then you take a 24-second video of the scene. Later, the app combines the audio and video and then prompts you to watch and listen, which helps you form a stronger memory.
“We’re trying to mimic how the hippocampus stores memories,” Barense explained. “So it’s not about trying to capture beautiful photos or beautiful videos, it’s about making a memory cue.”
The HippoCamera isn’t available for download yet, but you can sign up for an email notification once it’s released. While we wait, though, there’s a lot in the science that informs the app that can help us do some of the work on our own.
Nobody’s saying you should never take a picture again. When you do, however, it should be done with intention. Think about why you want this photo. Think about why it’s important to you. And, at the end of the day, reflect on the importance of that moment.
We don’t have to give up our phones or our cameras. It’s becoming increasingly clear, though, that we need to find ways to change our relationship with these tools.
“Whenever new technologies like this are developed, we worry that it will ruin culture and our memories,” Hardt said. “In the end, though, these technologies have significant advantages.
“It’s just that we have to find a way to use them so that they aren’t detrimental to us.”