Is excessive screen time affecting our memory?

Memory loss is a concern for many – especially as we age – and is all too real if we have elderly relatives who show signs of dementia.

But, what if technology plays a greater role in the onset of memory loss in younger adults than we may give it credit for?

A recent opinion piece in the Epoch Times suggests that technology could be linked to a risk of early onset dementia-type symptoms (referred to as ‘digital dementia’) – a direct result of excessive technology use. The piece suggests that our passive use of technology reduces the use of our prefrontal cortex (involved in higher-level executive functions – i.e. planning and decision-making) and shrinkage of the grey matter (critical to emotions, memory and movement).

Although this may be the case, in an article in Psychology Today, Susan Greenfield (PhD) suggests the notion of ‘digital dementia’ is one that is more in line with the concept of neuroplasticity.

Our brains form and build neurons in order to supplement and enhance areas that are most used. Much like building muscles in the body, neurons in our brains grow and fire together to expand the most used neural pathways, so that more information can flow down these pathways more easily. This is how we build up skillsets and muscle memory.

With this in mind, research seems to find that video gamers are more likely to use an area of the brain called the Striatum (directly associated with a response strategy triggered by specific locations). This makes sense from the perspective that entering a specific area in a game often requires engaging in the same predictable (pre-programmed) actions and reactions.

The need to strategically navigate a new set of dynamic responses to get from one area to another would involve a different area of the brain called the hippocampus (that creates spatial memory maps – i.e. how locations are related to each other). As a ‘real world’ example, London Black Cab drivers, have a much larger hippocampus region as they build the necessary spatial memory skills to enable them to navigate the most direct path to a specific location as a person enters their cab.

Ms Greenfield suggests the increase in gaming reduces grey matter in the hippocampus – which is directly associated with (amongst other disorders) PTSD, depression and dementia.

In an earlier article for Psychology Today, Ms Greenfield suggests that the use of smartphones is resulting in a change to the way we use our brains. We either retain information for future recall and use, or we retain a memory of how to find the information in the future.

She elucidates that, based on research, some people are ‘cognitive misers’, which means we don’t want to use cognitive energy to learn new information and retain it for future use or think through a problem in order to solve it. Nicknamed the ‘Google Effect’, these people are not as good at learning information if they know how to find it by searching for it later on – thereby using the internet as part of their memory bank.

Although there is a case for our brain to automate certain functions to allow our processing memory the space to tackle other or new tasks and skills, if we don’t use our brains to think and process information regularly, we are susceptible to cognitive atrophy (i.e. ‘use it or lose it). As Ms Greenfield so aptly puts it “if we use Google to supply the dots in the first place, then our ability to make new connections – to convert information to knowledge – may also be in jeopardy.”

She goes on to describe how our thoughts are an essential dimension of our identity. If we outsource our thinking to a machine, what impact will that then have on our identity in the longer term?

So, does excessive screen time and digital use increase the potential for symptoms of ‘digital dementia’? It all depends on how you use your digital technology and what portion of time spend online is a form of entertainment or a form of work. Technology is an enabler of our daily cognitive choices. Like going to the gym or eating well, exercising our brain on a daily basis is a choice only we can make, but we do need to be mindful of the outcome of that daily choice.