I’m finding my ability to focus and remember things is fading. At first I thought it might be age-related, but now I see it may have more to do with my behaviour. I spend a lot of time reading online. And that is impacting my attention and memory.
Our reliance on the internet to get information has created a whole new set of issues when it comes to memory and learning – we no longer have to remember anything, we can just ‘Google’ it – which some researchers say is making us dumber.
Give it a try. What’s the Earth’s circumference? We all had to memorize that fact at one point in our education. Can you remember it? (According to Universe Today: The circumference of the Earth in kilometers is 40,075 km or 24,901 miles as we would have been taught – and yes, I Googled it).
The sheer volume of information at our fingertips is kind of ridiculous. When a search results in thousands of possible bits of information, it can be overwhelming to choose which to read. In the interests of time we have become skimmers, reading a few lines and then easily distracted to the next article, email, video, text, tweet, or post. This impacts our ability to interpret or form rich mental connections, which, in turn, affects our ability to learn.
Are you still with me?
So, why is this a problem? Because life long learning has long been touted as one the best things you can do to maintain your cognitive abilities – e.g. focus, problem-solving, reasoning, and memory – as we age.
For most of us baby boomers, learning meant reading and memorizing facts. Or at least formal learning did. To gain knowledge and boost our memory and skills, Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better, says we must understand the connections between things we are learning about and how they interact with one another, so we can shift our reasoning ability.
A key to retaining information is to make it meaningful to you.
According to Boser, learning shouldn’t be passive. The old standbys of re-reading material or highlighting important passages to aid our memory give us a false sense of security that we’ll learn something. In the corporate training world, there is some research that shows adult learners will have forgotten an average of 50 per cent of the information you presented within one hour and up to 90 per cent of it within a week. What works to solidify new learning in our memory is to quiz ourselves about the content, to explain it to someone else, or apply it in some way.
Our brain regularly purges information no longer deemed useful to make room for new information that is relevant. Unfortunately, this process is not very discerning so important information is often discarded as well.
A key to retaining information is to make it meaningful to you. Associate it with something you want or conversely, want to avoid. (The fact that you didn’t ever plan to circumnavigate the globe, could be why you didn’t remember the distance you would have to travel to do it.)
Memory can also be reinforced by revisiting something at regular intervals. Reflection on what we learned and how it interacts with our existing knowledge, and hanging information on other bits of information are also good methods of reinforcement. For example, if you have difficulty remembering your colleague’s spouse’s name, try to link it to something that is important to you. If his name is Bob and you love burgers, associate the two together. Linking the two letter B’s and him with something that has meaning for you will help you to remember his name at your next social function.
I’m more than a little relieved that my issues around memory and focus are a shared problem. That means there will be more research on how we can mitigate it. It’s easy to blame declining cognitive function on aging. By broadening our perspectives to see what other factors might be impacting our abilities – in this case information overload – we can gain new insights that not only help us to function better, but also create awareness about own ageist beliefs.
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