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Put your phone down now, before Digital Dementia sets in

Wednesday, 24th July 2013
Marius Brill

If you’ve ever witnessed the under-the-table fumbling that breaks out during pub quizzes you’ll know how smartphones are affecting our ability to remember information. Who bothers to remember things like the make of James Bond’s car in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ or the name of the flower-devourers in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ anymore? And why should we? What use could information like that be anyway? 

According to a recent study though, our Google enhanced memory may have more serious long term consequences in a condition known as ‘Digital Dementia’. Doctors have found that persistent smartphone use can result in the sort of deterioration in cognitive ability that’s more often associated with patients suffering from head injury or psychiatric illness.

South Korea, epicentre of last year’s plague of Gangnam Style, is one of the most networked nations on Earth where 64.5 percent of teenagers own a smartphone. This year the country has seen a surge in cases of cognitive deficiency among young people. Apparently, many have become so reliant on digital technology they are no longer able to remember simple information such as their phone numbers.

Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, told the JoongAng Daily newspaper, ‘over-use of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain.  Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped'.

The left side of the brain is generally associated with rational thought, numerical computation and fact finding, but the right side of the brain is the centre of creativity and concentration. Its underdevelopment can affect attention and memory span as well as emotional development, especially in children whose brains are still growing. 

If the right brain remains under developed in the long term, it may lead to the early onset of dementia. 'Ten to 15 percent of those with the mild cognitive disorders develop dementia,' said psychiatrist Park Ki-Jeong.

These findings follow a UCLA study, published last month, which revealed that young people were increasingly suffering from memory problems. They found 14 per cent of people between 18 and 39 complained that their memory was poor.

The study pointed the finger at our modern lifestyle. Our ever increasing screen time leaves us unable to practice focussing on, or memorising, information. Our stress-filled hectic lifestyles prevent concentration or information retention.

Experiments at Columbia University by Psychologist Betsy Sparrow suggest a more pernicious cause. In her 2011 paper, ‘Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips,’ she found that Google and other search engines are changing the very structures of our brains and their ability to process and retain information. According to Sparrow, rather than remembering things, we now simply retain the knowledge of how to find the information we need when we need it. The internet has become our own 'transactive memory'.

With every development of new or better tools, humans have changed and evolved as they used them.  Perhaps we are witnessing the first tentative steps of Homo Digitalis Bionicus and can only look on with the same trepidation that the Neanderthals felt witnessing the coming of Cro-Magnon Man.

When parchment and ink became accessible enough to write down the massive memorised, and verbally passed down, works of the epic poets like Homer, did they fear what would happen to the memorisation abilities of the next generation of poets and writers? If they did, maybe they were right. Like everybody else today, they struggle to remember where they put their keys. 

Now, just as then, we are sensing that something is happening to us. We, connected, humans are changing but we have no idea if these changes are permanent, or dangerous, or hereditary; we simply fear the unknown as we always have. And, by the time we know the answers to these questions, I suspect  we will care as much about them as would the lotus-eaters, from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, who revelled in forgetfulness produced by the flowers they ate. Now how did I remember that?

Marius Brill lectures on the uses of forgetfulness. His book, ‘How To Forget’ (£6.99) is on sale in all good book shops now.


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