Can Technology Be Harmful to a Healthy Memory?

A piece by Nicholas Carr in the Outlook Section of the Washington Post, “In Google we trust, a bit too much,” (June 6, 2010 B3) raised some interesting questions about the possible harmful effects of technology. The specific Google feature addressed in this piece was the directions one can request from Google. Of course directions can be found in a variety of sources besides Google, but the general concern was using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigating ourselves. The Healthymemory Blog previously presented the study (“How Memory Works”) regarding the size of the hippocampi of London cab drivers. The hippocampus (its plural being hippocampi) is a brain structure essential for effective memory, particularly for the storage and retrieval of new memories. To receive a license as a London cab driver there is a test that requires the candidate driver to commit to memory the entire map of London. Drivers who earn this license had hippocampi that are larger then normal. The neuroscientist who led this study, Eleanor Maguire, fears that if London cab drivers adopt satellite navigation, their hippocampi will shrink with the consequent loss of much of their remarkable navigation sense. She is quoted as saying “We very much hope that they don’t start using it.”

So one expressed fear is that increasing reliance on GPS systems will result in the loss of our navigational skills (personally, I have little in the way of skill to lose here). Carr raises the larger fear that shrinking hippocampi, due to an increasing reliance on technology, could result in increases in Alzheimer’s Disease and senile dementia.

Readers of the Healthymemory Blog might regard this as a contradiction of the one of the premises of the blog that technology can results in increases in brain health. There is no real contradiction here. Whether technology is helpful or harmful depends on how technology is used. When one considers the potential of future technology, for example, the translation of written and spoken foreign languages, there is the possibility that we could become mental weaklings all too dependent on this technology. One can find a ready analogy to physical fitness where some of us are obese and/or in poor physical condition due to the many options in transportation that technology offers as well as the many options in sedentary entertainment.

However, technology can be used to enhance healthy memories. There are so many opportunities to learn new and interesting information and skills that do exercise our hippocampi. Getting information into our brains so that is retrievable exercises our hippocampi. Even learning how to find and retrieve information from transactive memory exercises our hippocampi. Moreover, we can exercise our hippocampi directly by using the mnemonic techniques presented in the Healthymemory Blog to learn new information.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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