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Digital Amnesia: Is Technology Ruining Our Ability to Remember? 

With the internet at our fingertips 24/7, there isn’t much we need to remember anymore. Phone numbers, addresses, birthdays or anniversaries - we know we can access this information anytime we want, so we don’t need to commit it to memory. Think about it. When was the last time you Googled the answer to a burning question, but couldn’t recall the answer a few days later? Probably last week. 

There was a time (albeit ancient) when people could remember days of someone’s talk. With the invention of writing, information could be recorded in a different way, and as a consequence, we remembered less. Then came along technology and the support for information changed again, arguably reducing our capacity to remember further. This raises a critical question: is technology ruining our ability to remember things? Is it, as author Nicholas Carr suggests, shattering our focus and rewiring our brain? 

Technology has profoundly changed the way we interact, learn and use our faculties of attention - and research suggests that this has a profound effect on our memories, fundamentally altering the way it functions. In a way, the internet has become the brain’s external hard drive. Our brain has changed to prioritise how to access information, not remembering the actual content. In an age where we are bombarded with more information than ever before on a daily basis, this isn’t really a surprising phenomenon. The online environment encourages cursory reading, distracted thinking and superficial learning. It gives us easy access to a wealth of information, but the danger is that access is turning us into shallow thinkers. 

Carr argues that the internet is an interruption system. It gains our attention only to ‘scramble it’. Numerous studies show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Additionally, the online environment has literally hundred ways of distracting us. Most email applications, for example, check for new messages every couple of minutes. If you work in an office then you’re probably glancing routinely at your inbox 30-40 times an hour. Since even a cursory glance can break our concentration and burden our working memory, the cognitive consequence can be acute. 

Furthermore, according to computer science professor Erik Franén even a single session of internet use can make it difficult for us to commit information to memory. Productivity expert and author of ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’, Tony Schwartz also claims that a majority of people are unable to effectively manage the surplus of information we’re constantly bombarded with:

“It’s like having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down. We’re constantly losing the information that’s just come in - we’re constantly replacing it, and there’s no place to hold what you’ve already gotten. It makes for a very superficial experience; you’ve only got whatever’s in your mind at the moment. And it’s hard for people to metabolise and make sense of the information because there’s so much coming at them and they’re so drawn to it. You end up feeling overwhelmed because what you have is an endless amount of facts without a way of connecting them into a meaningful story."

The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to remember and connect information. When information is stored in our long-term memory, we are able to connect and weave it into complex or abstract ideas that give depth to our thought. Without this level of information retrieval, these connections are lost, and we are left with rudimentary thinking without the richness of critical, abstract thinking. 

At an industry level, this puts us in a critical situation. As memory faculties (potentially) decline, we need to think even more carefully about how we gain people’s attention and perhaps more importantly - where. If consumers’ working memory is constantly overflowing with new information with little retention, how do we navigate digital media advertising? What should content look like? Should our focus be on frequency to increase recall? How can we ensure a brand has salience and ‘stickiness’ beyond a fleeting digital interaction? 

At a professional level, as marketers we are constantly asked to create new things. New ideas. New strategies. New ways of approaching old things. But our working memories are in digital overload too. Perhaps in the process of navigating and digesting articles, social media, emails and briefs everyday on multitasking technology, we’re not setting up ourselves for success. Perhaps the way we are working isn’t sustainable. Ultimately, perhaps by relying on technology, we’re sacrificing what fundamentally makes our brains (and us) interesting. 

Words by Senior Brand Leader, Imagene Callinan