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Computers are messing with your head

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief Author expertise
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This article in the Sunday Times struck a chord with me, because I see this phenomenon affecting me with some regularity: computers and the ‘net are somehow making people forgetful:

A preliminary study of 150 people aged 20 to 35 has shown that more than one in 10 are suffering from severe problems with their memory. Researchers from Hokkaido University’s school of medicine in Japan said the memory dysfunction among the young required further investigation.

“They’re losing the ability to remember new things, to pull out old data or to distinguish between important and unimportant information. It’s a type of brain dysfunction,” said Toshiyuki Sawaguchi, the university’s professor of neurobiology. “Young people today are becoming stupid.”

This complaint sounds suspiciously like what any old codger would say about younger generations, but in this case, there’s definitely more to it. I’ve experienced the problem after a day of serious web surfing or even after a long Quake session. (Ever dreamed Doom? You cover a lot of virtual ground running around in a game.)

The Times article offers a frustrating combination of conflicting causalities for this problem. Check this paragraph:

Doctors are blaming computer technology, electronic organisers and automatic car navigation systems. They claim these gadgets lead to diminished use of the brain to work out problems and inflict “information overload” that makes it difficult to distinguish between important and unimportant facts.

Now which is it: diminished use of the brain, or taking in too much information? The Times’s quoted experts seem to disagree. First, there’s this guy:

Professor Pam Briggs of Northumbria University, who recently chaired a British Psychological Society symposium on the effects of technology, said: “I think increased use of the internet and computer technology is starting to have an effect. Everyday memory might be at threat if you are using the computer as a kind of external memory.”

I think he’s kind of missing the boat here, but to an extent, he’s right. Before I had a cell phone with a built-in directory, I could recall the phone numbers of tens of people with ease. Now, I’m lost without my phone’s directory. But I tend to think that issue is the result of another problem. Check out this guy’s theory:

Dr David Cantor, director of the Psychological Services Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, who has treated patients for memory and attention problems for more than 20 years, said: “Many experts believe information overload is making it difficult for some people to absorb new information, as they have reached a limit of what they can store in their brains. These people forget things because they were too distracted to absorb them in the first place.”

Now that describes my experience. Too much Shortbread, I think.

Seriously, this is a very real problem. We take in a lot of information, and with computers, we can take it in very efficiently—much more so than we can, say, reading a book. Information is presented in a plethora of different ways via the ‘net, 3D games, and the like, and the info we take in is often fragmented, disconnected, and not necessarily clustered around a common theme or set of themes. Then there’s the pace at which new info hits us—especially news, from around the globe, all the time. I, for one, have had trouble coping from time to time. After a day of serious web surfing or the like, I may be exhausted or mentally fuzzy.

Which explains my news posts.

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Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief

Scott Wasson Former Editor-in-Chief

Scott Wasson is a veteran in the tech industry and the former Editor-in-Chief at Tech Report. With a laser focus on tech product reviews, Wasson's expertise shines in evaluating CPUs and graphics cards, and much more.

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