I was listening to a radio commentator talking about how a former big name politician was considering endorsing a candidate. It had been some eight years since he held office, but he had a presence on the national scene. Another commentator said he didn’t think what this person had to say would have much influence because nobody really heard much about them anymore. They didn’t have a presence on social media and so out of sight made them out of mind.
I got to thinking about how our culture churns out new popular celebrities and gobbles them up as quickly as they create them. For every 15 minutes of fame that arrives another flash in the pan slips off the social radar. I wondered if this deluge of new importance and downgrading of old news will affect memory. As we spend less time engaged with something and more time devouring the latest tweet, headline and news blast does our attention span shorten and our memory go with it?
There is a fair amount of research on memory. Although I can’t remember any of it now. That was a joke. I actually do remember some things. Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD is an expert in memory. In reflecting on the influence of technology she does not think it is making our brains lazy. “I would suggest that it is making us more efficient. Instead of having to fill up our mental ‘space’ with lots of information, this space is now freed up to focus on other things.”
Our working memory involves taking the information we have and putting it into use. In the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Dr Alloway writes: “working memory is the #1 predictor of learning success.” Less you lament that your working memory may not be as healthy as you would like, she writes in the Journal of Interactive Learning Research: “Working memory can be trained.” Whew. She has, of course, a book to help you out if you are interested.
Here are some simple things you can do to help you out. Use visual imagery to help you out. When I throw my keys someplace I could take a mental picture. Those visual memories get stored in a different part of the brain so I have doubled down on my ability to remember. Then if I want I could tell someone where I put them. The dog doesn't seem to mind my sharing this information and if you have no pets you can always just pick any object around your home and have a little conversation that you were preferred not be videoed and put on social media. And something that all teachers learn is that if you want to know something, teach it. I don't think there is a lot to teach about where you leave your keys, but when it comes to trying to remember more complex ideas think about trying to explain it to someone else, even if it is the lamp in the corner. There are more tips you can employ to help you out so don't despair completely about memory loss.
Technology has changed how we learn and what we need to learn. Spelling is not as important as it was because spell check will come to your aid more often than not. You don’t need to do math like you used to cause you are walking around with a calculator in your pocket. You don’t need to memorize things because you can look them up and get a more complete rendering than one you could pull from your memory. Teachers and schools are learning what it means to be a learner these days. Unfortunately they have to unlearn much of what they were taught in order to teach new generations. It is a wonderful challenge and just like many of us will have cars that drive us in 10-20 years so too will the children born now and in the next ten years be going to a school that is much different than the one you attended.
So, while people bask in their fleeting fame and our attention span moves us on to the next new thing, it may be helpful to know that when you want to remember something you can train your memory so that it works with you. I take hope that if I learn more about developing my working memory I might just remember where I put my car keys.