All health's breaking loose: All health's breaking loose: Memory and your brain

Published: Tuesday, July 19 2011 8:43 a.m. MDT

How we use search engines and online databases has affected the way we remember information.

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SALT LAKE CITY — You’re reading this on the Internet, not cuddled up with a book or in the library studying for a test. You’re online. You’re gathering information. And the question scientists are wondering about is, will you retain what you read?

Betsy Sparrow, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, says, “Human memory is adapting to new communications technology.”

Since students studying for a test are more likely to recall facts they think will be on a test, she wondered whether people would be as likely to remember what they casually read from their computers, knowing they could find that information again.

Dr. Sparrow collaborated with Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin staging four different memory experiments. In one, participants were asked to type 40 bits of trivia, such as, “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” into a computer. Half of them were told the information would be saved in the computer and the other half that the information they typed would be erased.

The participants were significantly more likely to have the ability to recall information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. They did not make the effort to remember it if they thought they could go back later and look it up again.

Wondering if computer accessibility affects exactly what we remember, another one of the experiments was staged.

“If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example,” the researchers wrote, “do we think about flags — or immediately think to go online to find out?”

Dr. Sparrow said it “blew her mind” when she found participants were more likely to recall the folder where they saved the information rather than the actual information.

The study is looking at transactive memory — the notion that we rely on others as well as reference material to store information for us. For example, if your partner knows all about the Utah Jazz, you might be more likely to just ask them who is in the starting lineup rather than remember it yourself.

We still don’t know everything there is to know about the Internet’s effect on our memory, but other than our brain, it certainly is our major storage system for information. Your brain is your own personal “computer” or storage system and needs exercise just like the rest of your muscles. We store information in different parts of our memory. Your recent memory stores what you ate for lunch while your short-term memory stores the name of a person you met moments ago. Information stored in the remote or long-term memory includes things you experienced years ago, such as childhood memories.

As we age the production of chemicals needed to assist in brain cell function slow down so our memory may not be as sharp. Your recent memory is the first to be affected. You may forget the name of someone you just met or where you set your car keys. This can be a normal memory “glitch” and should not send you to the doctor asking about Alzheimer’s just yet.

Practicing your memory can help. Try writing down some trivia or information and then put it away. If you have to make a Post-It note to remind you where you have put it, that’s fine. In 48 hours see if you still “have it” in your head without looking at the paper you wrote it on. Then try to remember it again in a week. You can add to or change up the information on your paper to keep a steady practice going so you are continually accessing that part of your memory. Your memory will improve while you keep brain cells functioning, which reduces your chances for Alzheimer’s.

I’ll see you soon. I hope you remember to check back here next week. I’ll have something new for you.

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