With phone numbers, routes and facts just a touch away, we’re becoming less reliant on our memory – and German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer warns this ‘cognitive offloading’ could be leading to a kind of ‘digital dementia’.
Studies on internet and gaming addicts has uncovered atrophy (shrinking) in the brain’s grey matter, says the University of Bedfordshire’s Prof James Barnes. Overdosing on technology seems to cause the frontal lobe – a brain area that governs functions such as planning and organising – to suffer in particular. However, he adds that more research is needed on ‘real’ as opposed to ‘addicted’ internet users.
Digital offloading may also make memories less vivid. A US study asked museum visitors to photograph some exhibits and just look at others. The next day their memory was tested. Visitors were worse at recognising objects they had photographed, and worse at recalling details about the objects they’d photographed.
But Dr Sam Gilbert, of University College London, says there are also positives. “Research shows that when you save information to an external store like a computer, this can help you to store new memories. Your mind is no longer cluttered with information that you don’t need.”