Samuel Greengard

Author / Journalist / Speaker

Losing Your Mind?

Hey, absent-minded professional: Your favorite gadget could sap your ability to remember.

Only a few years ago, Michael Schell had a memory that put people to shame. The CEO for RW3 LLC, a New York-based expatriate cultural online training organization, had almost every important phone number, calling-card code, and PIN — hundreds of them — committed to memory. He also knew his entire schedule for the week without glancing at a calendar. “I could recall all the information instantly,” he says.

Then he bought a personal digital assistant (PDA) and began storing all the data in it. “Now I can’t recall my wife’s cellphone number, and I find myself increasingly relying on the device to serve as my memory,” he admits. “If you lose or damage the device, you can find yourself in big trouble.”

These days, Schell isn’t the only one worried about losing his mind. Amid a deluge of personal information — phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthdays, passwords, PINs, credit-card numbers and expiration dates, government and employee ID numbers, and more — people increasingly rely on computers, PDAs, and cellphones to store data and auto-dial calls. The same people often find this same data disappearing from their brains.

That’s leading some scientists to question whether gadgets undermine our memories and change the way we think. “Our brains have only a certain amount of memory capacity, and we have to pick and choose what we commit to memory,” says Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Memory Prescription: Dr. Gary Small’s 14-Day Plan to Keep Your Brain and Body Young. “There’s no question that these devices make our lives easier and allow us to retrieve information more quickly. The question is, Does it worsen brainpower or lead to negative results?”

MINDING BUSINESS

Over the years, studies have shown that there’s a “use it or lose it” element to memory. Within the brain, neurons and synapses that aren’t used will disconnect from one another. Although humans are capable of remarkable feats of memory — including learning numerous foreign languages and recalling hundreds of thousands of chess moves —they are also capable of forgetting all that information … or misplacing the car keys.

“It’s like muscle tone. If you don’t exercise, you get flabby,” observes Alan S. Brown, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University. He’s worried about the trend toward storing information in silicon rather than in gray matter. “When it comes to memory, the mind gets rusty and capacity fades without practice,” he explains.

The problem is growing worse. His research indicates that only 7.1 percent of those venturing online use a different password for each of their accounts, and many rely on easy-to-remember names, including those of their pets and spouses, to protect their data. “In many cases, people feel overwhelmed by all the things they have to remember, so they try to simplify things, even when it is not in their best interest,” Brown says. “Passwords are the last frontier of flexing our memory muscle, and most of us are failing.”

Other studies support Brown’s notion that we’re losing our memories bit by bit. For example, a few years ago, researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan examined 150 young adults between the ages of 20 and 35 and found that more than one in 10 suffered from serious memory problems. Among the causes: growing reliance on computers, electronic organizers, and automobile navigation systems. Researcher Toshiyuki Sawaguchi, who headed the study, described the problem as a “type of brain dysfunction.”

Michael Schell can relate. Last summer, while at the beach, he accidentally took a dip in the ocean with his PDA/cellphone in his pocket. It went dead. Immediately, he felt as if his entire world had sunk into a technological abyss. He couldn’t receive calls, but even worse, he found himself completely isolated from business associates and friends. “Because we have a PDA or computer, we don’t make any attempt to remember information,” he observes. “Then, if we damage or lose the device, the panic is enormous.”

For Stephen Ciesinski, CEO of Laszlo Systems, a San Mateo, California, web software development firm, the story is similar. In times past, he stored numerous phone numbers, addresses, and other information in his brain. Now it’s held on a computer and a PDA/cellphone. “Part of the problem is that even if a person wants to memorize personal information, it’s no longer possible,” he says. He estimates that his PDA holds more than 3,000 contacts, each with fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and multiple phone numbers. That amounts to somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000 data fields.

Now, Ciesinski says, the challenge is recalling which pieces of information reside on which gadget, finding the right piece when he needs it, and operating all the devices and software that preserve it. The last bastion of human memory? “I still keep track of birthdays and important anniversaries in my head,” he boasts.

TOTAL RECALL

Although it’s tempting to demonize these devices as human memory killers, Michael Epstein, a professor of psychology at Rider University, says history is littered with memory-saving tools. From the abacus to the
electronic calculator, from the printed address book to the modern contact manager, humans have always tried to simplify their thinking.

It’s a new chore to juggle this plethora of passwords and PINs, but that juggling also creates new opportunities, Epstein says. “Instead of having to remember phone numbers and birthdays, we must learn how to operate all the devices,” he says. “Yes, we become more reliant on the machines, and we can lose certain skills. But we are not evolving out of our ability to remember.” He sees Ciesinski’s challenge — all that finding and operating— as a different kind of brain exercise: “As long as we nurture our memory in other ways, there isn’t a problem.”

UCLA’s Small believes that mental aerobics, physical exercise, and a good diet go a long way toward ensuring that the 100 billion or so brain cells in each person function efficiently [see “Food For Thought” below]. He also agrees that packing data into electronic devices isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “With the amount of information we’re confronted with in today’s world, it is essential to find ways to manage and cope,” he says. “Ideally, these devices allow us to use our memories for other, more important things.”

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