Technology's Impact on Memory
Author: Celeste Nachnani
Editors: Fahad Hassan Shah, Nadia Hall
We all know technology has impacted our lives in many ways, making our lives easier than our parents' lives. However, this does not mean technology does not present its challenges; users need to evaluate how it affects their growth and mental development. Nowadays, information is just one click away; concerns are rising about how this will impact people’s ability to remember information. With the rise of platforms such as ChatGPT, a threat to people’s memory and ability to think critically for themselves emerges. These factors start to affect the user’s brain chemistry, making it essential to be aware of how you use informational platforms, to preserve your brain’s health and level of cognitive skills.
Reliance on technology may lead to a loss of old memories’ synapses due to disuse. When the brain forms new memories, new synapses are created. However, some old synapses are lost to strengthen the connections in new synapses so that new memories form (Arnold, 2022). As social creatures, humans have never been expected to remember everything by themselves. We have always relied on other people for information, but that source has changed now to include the Internet. However, there is a difference between recalling information independently and relying on the internet to provide information for you. This makes it important to occasionally try to recall information by yourself rather than going straight to the internet. This is because you may falsely believe that by searching on the internet you are simply validating what you already know (Ingram, 2021). However, it may be that you would not have been able to recall that information due to the synapses of that memory not being reinforced enough.
Training - the habit of learning something or navigating through the same locations every day- causes neuronal activity in the brain. Assemblies of neurons are responsible for storing this information. These assemblies become disconnected if not used enough (Gonzalez, 2021). For instance, if you learned some words in Spanish in high school, this information would be stored in neuronal assemblies for a bit. However, you would not be able to speak the language nor recall many words years after high school because these assemblies became disconnected due to a lack of practice. Studies have shown that cab drivers in London have a larger hippocampus than those in the general population due to constantly reinforcing directions (Gonzalez, 2021).
When you have to navigate through a location or recall something independently, there are major spikes of brain activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (Shields & Javadi, 2017). Such stimulation is important for brain health: engaging in cognitive activities helps offset the effects of underlying memory issues/diseases (although it does not pose a cure for memory disorders) (Gonzalez, 2021).
A process that occurs in the hippocampus when people try to remember things is the creation of mental maps. Anthropologists have found that navigation needs were the starting point for humans to create memories (Gonzalez, 2021). This causes people to form mental maps or memory floors in their minds, in which each floor represents a different piece of information, and traveling through these floors symbolizes people physically obtaining each piece of information (Do et al., 2021).
People also utilize spatial navigation when trying to guide themselves through a familiar or unfamiliar location. Traveling to new places forms new memories, helping to strengthen synapses in the brain. The brain can pick up on cues or landmarks, taking note of your body’s linear or angular motion to stay aware of your surroundings. Head direction cells in your brain fire when your brain points in specific directions, to keep you aware of your surroundings (Gonzalez, 2021). However, as mentioned before, synapses formed while navigating are lost due to reliance on the GPS. The GPS has hindered people’s ability to remember directions, despite posing the great benefit of allowing them to travel to new places with ease.
The thalamus of the brain, which transfers memories to parts of the brain that store long-term and short-term memories, is activated by smell (Gonzalez, 2021). This is why smells sometimes trigger memories from the past, enhancing people’s recollection by utilizing senses other than sight- and that is something that technology just cannot replace. Remembering the smell of your favorite food or childhood bedroom are precious memories that can be activated through a simple smell. To save these precious moments, it is important to take a break from relying on technology, which can weaken the connection of synapses formed in our brains.
Overall, these informational platforms have made knowledge more widely accessible. But they should be used with caution, because if used as a replacement for recalling information on one’s own, technology can negatively impact memory. However, if used correctly, as an aid rather than the first resort to the answer to a question or the way back home, it is very beneficial for the people relying on it.
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Gonzalez, Mar. “How GPS Weakens Memory—and What We Can Do about It.” Scientific American, 7 May 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-gps-weakens-memory-mdash-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/. Accessed 23 March 2023.
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