Stare at these objects for 20 seconds:
You have one minute to write down as many objects as you can remember. (No cheating!)
How'd you do? If you could list only a few items, your dependence on technology might be partly to blame.
You walk into your kitchen—and draw a blank on why you're there. You're introduced to a new coworker and forget her name while shaking her hand. The more familiar these scenarios sound, the worse you likely did on our memory quiz. After 20 seconds of staring at the image above, the average adult should be able to recall about seven of the 10 items. Jotting down fewer than three is a sign that your short-term memory—your brain's ability to hold and use information for a brief time—may be faltering. And as a result, you may struggle to block out distractions and finish tasks.
Something is definitely making us blank on basic info that we used to memorize easily. These days, many of us are abysmal at recalling the birthdays of more than three close friends or family members, according to a 2007 poll conducted by neuroscience researchers from Trinity College Dublin. Interestingly, people over 50, whose memory is more likely to suffer from age-related wear and tear, did better than the under-30 set. It's easy to point the finger at technology, especially since we're online for more than five hours a day, visiting an average of 40 sites. When we're not catching up on Scandal, we're liking, tweeting, and pinning stuff on social media. Or we do both: 61% of us watch TV and use the Internet at the same time, according to a report from ComScore, a Web analytics firm. The question is, what are electronics doing to your memory—the kind in your brain, not the type you can pick up by the gigabyte at Best Buy?
This is Your Brain on Technology
"Technology can be very distracting," says Gary Small, M.D., director of UCLA's memory and aging center and coauthor of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. "And most of us aren't good at managing distractions." Indeed, we humans are, by design, distraction junkies; the cavewoman who was attuned to the unfamiliar—which was often a sign of danger—was more likely to survive. When we encounter something new and unusual, we also get a happy endorphin hit. "As a result, our brains crave novelty and seek it out," says Small.
The trouble is, when you're distracted, it becomes difficult to concentrate—and your brain needs to focus in order to form memories. "Distraction interferes with working memory—the brain's scratch pad that allows us to keep information in mind," explains Anthony Wagner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University. Alas, your scratch pad can hold only a few items at one time, and if those items don't eventually get transferred to your long-term memory, they're erased.
The Hidden Cost of Multitasking
Tech also tampers with your memory simply by stressing you out. Those of us who toggle frantically between online articles, Pinterest, and e-mail are significantly more stressed than people who focus on one thing at a time, according to a study at the University of California, Irvine. "Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol lead to atrophy in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that's important for both storing and retrieving memories," Small says.
It's no wonder heavy multitaskers score lower on tests of working memory. More alarming, there's evidence that constantly doing several activities at once (like simultaneously texting, watching videos on YouTube, and typing an e-mail) has changed their brains. Studies using brain imaging found that when multitaskers try to focus on one thing, their brains work less efficiently; they're so accustomed to taking in the forest instead of a single tree, or swinging from branch to branch, that they can no longer ignore irrelevant information. And distractions don't just affect our ability to store away new stuff. "They degrade the ability to recall information, too," says Adam Gazzaley, Ph.D., M.D., director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UCSF. Hence, what's-her-name syndrome (or at least one cause of it).
What's more, being perpetually tethered to technology means you're forfeiting your downtime—which is an underappreciated factor in brain health. Taking a break is key to learning and remembering new information, as well as coming up with new ideas. Studies with rats reveal that when they explore an unfamiliar part of a maze, their brains show new patterns of activity. But it's only when the rats relax that they process those patterns in a way that creates a memory of the experience—yet another reason to avoid the rat race.
The Boost We Get from Google
Some memory experts argue that the reason we don't remember certain information is simply that we don't need to; technology does it for us. In 2011, researchers found that people were more likely to forget things they knew they could find on Google, but they tended to remember stuff that would not be easy to look up. If they couldn't remember a fact, they usually recalled the next best thing: where to find it. "People these days worry that they don't know phone numbers, but I think we're just allocating that brain space to different things now," says Betsy Sparrow, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University and lead author of the study. "If the government outlawed mobile devices tomorrow, my bet is we'd all memorize the numbers we use frequently within two weeks."
Bottom line: Technology can actually be a handy memory extender. But if you're constantly looking for your glasses or spacing on your friends' birthdays—or if you've already forgotten the ballet shoes from the first page of this story—you might want to turn off your phone and fold up the laptop every once in a while. Your brain, and maybe even what's-her-name, will thank you.
Total Recall: Best Ways to Sharpen Your Memory
Avoid the Internet rabbit hole. If you're online to complete a task—research for a work presentation or an upcoming trip, for example—resist the temptation to bob from site to site. Instead, set aside 30 minutes to focus on your project. "You'll get more done, and you'll probably be able to remember more, too, because you're not bombarding your brain with different types of information," says Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Schedule downtime. Research shows that pastimes like gardening or even soaking in the tub help your brain consolidate memories by strengthening connections between neurons. Aerobic exercise has the added benefit of increasing blood flow to areas of the brain involved in memory (such as the hippocampus), so make time for a brisk walk most days.
Try single-tasking. Read a novel or play the piano. "Doing anything that requires singular focus is valuable for memory," says neuroscientist P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.
Let technology help. A host of apps and websites now promise to block distractions and boost mindfulness, but they don't all have peer-reviewed studies to prove their effectiveness; one that does is Cogmed Working Memory Training (cogmed.com).
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.