I can tell you the street address of the house I lived in when I was 8 years old. I can tell you the name of my freshman dorm and exactly how I used to get from there to the local pizza place 10 years ago. But after I'd been living in my most recent apartment for six months, I went to the DMV to renew my driver's license and could not--could not--summon to mind my own zip code.
These "senior moments" seem to be happening with alarming frequency for a not-yet-30-year-old, and there might be an unexpected reason for it: According to new research, our high-tech habits--such as reading the news on a laptop, Instagramming every occasion, and IM'ing constantly--could be seriously shortchanging our short-term memory.
Still, permanently tossing aside my iPhone is the only thing I'm less likely to do than remember my BFF's birthday without a little help from Facebook. (Sorry!) But we don't have to totally disconnect to get our synapses to fire correctly--we just have to tweak a few of our tech tendencies.
The Tech Trap: You Instagram everything.
I know, I know: No one has ever seen such a gorgeous waterfall. But there's a reason to stop before you snap: We're less likely to remember something when we take a photo of it, says a 2013 study from Fairfield University.
When we take a picture, says Linda Henkel, lead author of the study, we subconsciously count on our camera to capture the moment for us. This could work if we actually used the photos to help strengthen our memories by looking at them later on, says Henkel. Instead, we fill our phones and digital cameras with so many shots that combing through them becomes a nearly impossible task--or we post them on Instagram, gather accolades, then never look back.
The Fix: Take the time to soak in the scene first. And be sure to sort through your photos later.
"Before you take a picture, really look at your surroundings and think, What do I want to capture about this?" advises Henkel.
Making a mindful choice can help you create a more meaningful memory, the kind that's easier for your brain to access later on. A few in-the-moment Instagrams won't cause amnesia, but spend some time organizing your photos into albums on your computer, or feel free to flood your feed with #latergrams: Reviewing and interacting with the photos afterward by cropping and adding filters can improve our recall of the moment.
"The photos act as retrieval cues to help your brain conjure up a memory," says Henkel.
The Tech Trap: While trying to get work done, you're sending GChats, taking calls, and, fine, watching the occasional cat video.
When we sit down at a computer, our brains reach the point of information overload a lot sooner than you might think. Most people consider themselves mental multitaskers, but our working memory, which is activated when we're receiving new information, can actually process only three to five items at a given time.
"As we approach the limit of our working memory, we become more easily distracted and may start forgetting things," says Erik Fransen, a computer science professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
The Fix: Disconnect during downtime.
No, we're not talking about a weeklong meditation retreat. Giving your brain time to process can be as simple as spacing out for a minute or two while you ride the elevator instead of scrolling through Facebook, says Fransen. The existence of smartphones has pretty much deprived our brains of the built-in moments of passive activities in daily life that can help combat absentmindedness. Also, when you have a challenging task, try to work on it alone for half an hour, because it takes at least 10 to 15 minutes to really focus on a demanding activity, says Fransen.
The Tech Trap: You turn to a search engine every time your memory fails.
"You know the actor! The one in the Scorsese movie--the one set on Wall Street! . . .John? Jason something? Argh!"
Yes, it's one of the most frustrating feelings ever, but in this case, the omnipresent search engine you pull up to figure something out may be the reason you can't remember the fact in the first place: According to a study at Columbia University, people are less likely to remember information when they know they can just look it up later, meaning the existence of Internet search engines can actually make us feel more forgetful.
The Fix: Do. Not. Freak. Out.
The reality is, we're not more forgetful. We've always depended on external memory sources, but they used to be other people, not search engines (think of your cousin who is a Trivial Pursuit superstar), says lead study author Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University. So, in the case of hitting the Internet, "we're just relying on different things to help us remember," says Sparrow.
If you'd rather not lean on a search engine, your best bet is to stay calm. The name you're at a loss for will probably pop into your mind when you clear your head. If that fails, it's likely that you'll be able to think of a few key words to google. And what's the harm in that? (P.S. It's Jonah Hill. You're welcome.)
The Tech Trap: You get your news digitally.
It's no wonder you read that great op-ed on the Keystone pipeline but can't remember enough of the details to make cocktail-party conversation: People who read text on-screen have lower levels of reading comprehension than people who read the same material on a printed page, says a study in the International Journal of Educational Research.
The Fix: Put the paper back in newspaper.
For longer reads and in-depth analysis, reading on paper may help step up comprehension. The fixed layout of the page aids in recall, because your spatial memory kicks in too, so imagining where the information was on the page can help you remember it. When you do scroll, keep it short and sweet: Part of the issue with memory and screen reading is that LCD screens, like those on your computer or your smartphone, emit a fluctuating light that can cause visual fatigue after a while. This creates more processing work for your brain, so it has to work even harder on other comprehension tasks, including storing the correct information in your memory.
The tech-friendly loophole? E-readers that use ambient light instead of backlighting. Unlike most tablets or laptops, ambient-light e-readers reduce the cognitive load required to read and free up some of your mental energy for proper processing.