How does that old song go? “Memories...light the colors of my mind...misty water-colored memories...” For some, that song itself inspires misty water-colored memories. But what else can you remember about it? How about the title? The performer? The lyrics? The year it was released?
There’s a pretty good chance that if you are part of the Baby Boomer generation, you can hum the melody of that particular No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but the other details may escape you. Or maybe you remember the whole thing but can’t remember where you left your keys. Isn’t it interesting to consider what we remember and how? Why the melody and not the lyrics? Why the performer but not the title? Why a song but not where we put our reading glasses two minutes ago? (Don’t forget to check on top of your head.)
Recently, researchers have been digging into the issue of memory, particularly how it is affected by technology. Memory is a supremely difficult topic—it seems to be influenced by a murky stew of neurology, psychology, intellect, practic and much more—but a certain consensus is forming: You can hurt your memory, and you can help your memory, and technology may be one factor that is actually making your memory worse.
It’s Getting Hazy
The American population is getting older—in droves. According to U.S. Census figures, about 13 percent of the American population was over the age of 50 in 1900. It is projected that more than 35 percent of Americans will be age 50 or older by 2020. But for some of us, our beating hearts are outlasting our remembering brains. Don’t be discouraged if you feel like your memory is becoming hazy; it may be nice to know that memory isn’t always a “you have it or you don’t” kind of thing. You can do things to improve memory, and you can avoid things that harm it. We are coming to believe that how we interact with digital technology has a significant effect on the strength and/or weakness of our memories.
Of particular concern to researchers is the effect of Internet use on our ability to remember. Unless someone printed out this article to pass along to you, you are probably reading this online right now. If you are reading this on the website, notice to the right of this article are links: Buyer’s Guide, Ask an Expert, Ask Your Doctor. Above, there is a whole menu of “places” you can go. And what about your email inbox, which is probably just a click away? According to cutting-edge research, all those clickable options, all that information at your fingertips, has the potential to harm your ability to recall what you’ve read.
If you’d like to re-create some recent experiments on memory, here’s a fun one: Read this blog post online and spend a moment thinking about it. Then, print out the next blog post, turn off the computer and read it. What researchers are coming to believe is that you will remember the second blog post—the one you printed and read on paper—much better than the one you read online because you focused on it without the distraction of clickable options, including hyperlinks. As author Nicholas Carr points out, even if you don’t click on a hyperlink, you were forced into a choice that could not help but divert your attention from the subject at hand.1
It’s All Coming Back Now
We have known for a long time that, as with the muscles of the body, the brain can be trained. What we are now learning is just how important brain training is to the memory – especially the memory of an aging person. In neuroscientist William Klemm’s extensive writings on memory, he has identified several key steps one can take to hold onto and improve memory.2 Among these are:
- Disciplined concentration, as mentioned above.
- Physical exercise, possibly because it increases blood flow to the brain, possibly because it reduces mind-clouding stress.
- Nutrition. Research is ongoing as to just what nutrients aid in memory, but studies have suggested Ginkgo biloba may boost circulation to the brain, moderately improve memory in healthy people and help with memory loss in patients with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. CoQ10 (or Ubiquinol) is also being studied as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease.
Certain companies, notably Luminosity, have worked with neuroscientists to develop personalized programs that help train the brain to improve its function, particularly in the areas of learning and memory. The mind games at Luminosity.com (yes, a website) have been studied in various research papers and have been found to do as intended. They are also quite fun. As Dr. Klemm points out, barring a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the memory can be improved.
The Long and the Short of It
Memory is an essential aspect of health. Too often it is overlooked because you can’t feel it the way you can feel, for example, an upset stomach or muscle aches. But the brain is a physical organ, and it can be strengthened and improved like other muscles and organs in the body. Much is made of the difference between long-term and short-term memory, and indeed the brain seems to process these types of memories in different places. But the connection between long-term and short-term memory should be stressed. Habits of concentration, attention to physical health and a commitment to fun mental activity will improve both short-term and long-term memory.
With an improved memory, you will not only remember where you put the car keys, but also remember that the song is “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand, from the 1973 film of the same name, starring Babs herself and Robert Redford.
- Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton and Company, 2011.
- Klemm, W.R. D.V.M., PhD. An extensive list of titles on memory is available.