Here’s a quick challenge for you: can you recite your mother’s, spouse’s or best friend’s phone number without checking your smartphone?
If you can’t, you are not alone. Few people these days keep phone numbers, directions or appointment times, in their head anymore. Instead, we rely on our smartphones…they’ve become almost like extensions of our brains.
However, as I’ve learned from working with patients especially over the past several years, this level of reliance on technology does not come without a price.
A somewhat troubling trend I’ve noticed of late is more young patients in their 30s, 40s, and 50s seeking help with memory issues.
Even though I have been able to offer support with acupuncture and by recommending specific supplements and lifestyle changes, the “why” loomed large in my mind and heart.
Why are such young people experiencing cognitive decline?
In today’s post, I will share my observations along with scientific research on why I believe smartphones are a significant contributing factor to memory issues in the young.
Digital Amnesia—The Smartphone Memory Disease
I’ll admit, it didn’t take long before I began to suspect new technologies, like smartphones, may be behind these memory issues in younger adults.
After all, it speaks to commonsense that if we rely on a device to supplement our memory with notifications, GPS, voice recognition, alarms, etc. our memory-muscle (if you will) could get weak.
So I started researching and sure enough “digital amnesia” is a real issue.
In fact, according to a recent survey by cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab, 44% of the 1000 people surveyed between the ages of 16-55 said their smartphone serves as their memory1.
With this knowledge, I started inquiring about my patients’ smartphone habits. And sure enough, the younger ones with the memory issues claim to be addicted.
The addictive nature of the smartphone has to do with the dopamine that’s excreted by the brain when we check social media, news feeds, email, etc. That dopamine gives us a feeling of “reward” and keeps us coming back for more2.
But, as I continued to research, I found that dopamine isn’t the only factor of how smartphone addiction affects memory…
How Exactly Smartphone Usage Affects Your Memory
The body of research on this is growing, and I won’t attempt to share everything available, but here are some key facts important to know about the smartphone-memory connection:
Multi-tasking makes us less intelligent
Just try to hop on your smartphone to look up one thing only…it’s hard, right? That’s because our phones contain so many apps and notifications it’s hard to view just one.
The same goes with Internet usage at home. Maybe you get online to pay a bill or look up a friend, and before you know it you have six screens open and are engaged in multiple online activities.
Screens and devices breed multitasking, and multitasking has been shown by The Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London to reduce our IQ significantly (as much as losing a night of sleep)3.
Distraction makes memories more difficult to form
This is key in understanding the smartphone-memory connection.
Think about it, when we’re half-focused on learning a new skill or bit of information, how likely are we to form a strong memory about it? Not very.
The same goes for when we’re busy multitasking and quickly scrolling through information on our smartphones.
While we may quickly recognize the information and say “hmmm, that’s interesting”, it is unlikely to be stored in our long-term memory due to lack of focus.
Case in point, last year scientists at MIT identified the brain neuron responsible for memory formation, and found that neurons works best when the subject is actively engaged and focused on what they are learning4.
Internet usage has taken away the social aspects of memory formation and retention
I found this very interesting.
According to a recent article published in Scientific American entitled: “The Internet Has Become The External Hard Drive For Our Memories”, memory formation has always had a social component.
For example, a few years ago if you needed help with a recipe, a math problem, or DIY project you would have called up a friend or family member to walk you through it, which helps cement the memory.
However, these days most of us would rather “Google” advice than call up a live person.
Which will get you the answers you need, but will not help you retain that information long-term.
Which is why you may have found yourself looking up the same recipe or advice over and over; without the social component, the memory simply doesn’t form as strongly.
Smartphone or device addiction can interrupt sleep, leading to greater cognitive decline
This is a lesser known cause of cognitive decline, but a very important one.
The blue light and stimulating aspects of smartphones are huge contributors to sleep disturbances (and I am always blown away by how many of my patients sleep with their phones right next to their beds).
And when you aren’t sleeping enough (ideally 7-9 hours a night) your brain cannot engage in two key functions critical to memory health:
Its nightly cleansing via the glymphatic system. This newly discovered system acts like the brain’s cleaning service, cleansing out old information and dead cells (I discuss the glymphatic system at length in a previous post: “Science Confirms: Sleep Detoxifies Your Brain“). And it only is activated during deep, natural sleep.
Likewise, sleep is when your brain engages in what’s known as synaptic pruning, where old information is pruned out to make room for new information. Again, if you aren’t sleeping deeply, synpatic pruning cannot take place which impairs your ability to form new memories and retain new information.
What To Do About Digital Amnesia
Obviously the simple and best answer is to use our smartphones less and our brains more.
However, if you truly have a smartphone addiction this is easier said than done. While a full-blown digital detox (abstaining from screens for a period of days or weeks) would be advisable, I understand that’s not possible for most working adults.
Instead, I recommend kicking your smartphone addiction a little bit at a time. Here are some starting points:
Keep your phone and devices out of the bedroom, period. No one needs their cell phone right by their head at night, keep it out of reach for better sleep.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, unplug 2-3 hours before bed. This will give your body enough time to wind down from the blue light and stimuli.
Turn off notifications. Each “ding” encourages the release of stress hormones, which will amp you up and disturb sleep.
Uninstall all non-essential messaging apps. This includes social media, email, Skype, etc.
Instead of using your GPS everywhere you go, use Google maps to print directions…then try and get there with no help next time
Designate at least one day a week as a screen-free day. On this day you dedicate your time to activities not involving a device, and use your phone only for phone calls.
Get a land line. If you really want to do something drastic to kick your addiction try getting a landline. This is a really good option for those who just cannot answer the phone without getting distracted (and landlines are cheap these days).
Buddy up. As always, if you can make an agreement with a friend, family member or your healthcare practitioner to kick your smartphone addiction, you will be more successful at it.
The good news is, it is possible to improve your memory challenges by taking the simple steps above to create healthier habits.
Your healthcare practitioner may also be able to help you curb addictive tendencies using acupuncture, meditation, supplementation and/or other lifestyle changes.
While the Internet and smartphones may seem like the greatest inventions of our generation, the truth is there is nothing more precious than a strong and healthy brain rooted in an ability to make and retain memories.
For without memories, we are truly lost…and a device can never replace the world’s most incredible computer: the human brain.
I hope today’s article has served to heighten your awareness and knowledge about the very real impact smartphones have on brain health, and what you can do to protect your memory, health and happiness.
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