Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 27, 2019.
Writing for the New York Times, Adam Popescu outlines strategies to improve information retention memory in the era of smartphones.
How smartphones affect memories
According to Joseph LeDoux, who directs the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University, people's ability to form memories has been undermined by society's reliance on smartphones, with most people checking their phones an average of 47 times per day and nearly every question answerable via Google.
Day-to-day life is rife with distractions, but "many people seem unaware that they might accomplish more with sustained, uninterrupted attention to one task," Nelson Cowan, a specialist in working memory at the University of Missouri, explained. He added, "It can be exhilarating to flit from one conversation to another on Facebook, but people don't realize what's missing in the process. Often the people who think they're the best at sharing attention between tasks are actually missing the most."
Improve your memory
LeDoux explained that smartphones' ability to deliver facts instantly blurs our judgment regarding which information to filter and store. But there are ways to improve information processing and retention in our smartphone-filled world, Popescu writes. He outlines four key strategies to improve memory:
Repetition "continues to be the best method for transforming short-term memories into long-term ones," Popescu writes. The process works by building new connections in the brain, Popescu explains.
He writes that while the process involves "retrain[ing] our minds to focus on one task at a time," the good news is that the process is "probably [something you] did in your youth" and is "the easiest brain game there is."
2. Going slowly
According to Robert Bjork, chair of the psychology department at University of California-Los Angeles, cramming doesn't work and in fact leads us to forget, in the long term, the very material we tried to cram.
The most effective approach, Popescu writes, is to incorporate the information into daily life, "ideally over time." Specifically, researchers recommend spacing out repetition over a few days—but warn not to space it out too far, or else your gains could slow, Popescu reports.
3. Get focused
"Memory and focus go hand-in-hand," Popescu writes, and improving your ability to focus will in turn help your memory. His advice here is blunt: "Stop engaging in useless tasks like surfing the web and just tackle whatever it is you need to work on," he reports, citing research that found procrastination brings stress and impedes focus.
An office redecoration might be in order, too. According to Cowan, open offices popularized by Silicon Valley mean more distractions. "How do you stay on task if your co-worker is piloting a drone or endlessly, and loudly, snacking just inches away?" Popescu writes.
4. Incentives and cues
Another strategy is recurring testing, Popescu reports, citing Harvard research that found quizzing can cut daydreaming by 50 percent.
According to Daniel Schacter, a psychologist and co-author of the Harvard study, cues are helpful to memory as well. "Memory is very cue dependent," he said, in reference to what he calls absent-minded memory failure. "Most say it could never happen to me, but it's a very long list of responsible people that it has happened to. When you don't have that cue, you can forget almost anything."
An easy fix there is to set reminders, Popescu writes, but a better strategy is to "combine a few of these techniques." For instance, write a reminder on a piece of paper and leave the paper in a spot where you'll have to see it often (Popescu, "Smarter Living," New York Times, 10/19).
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