The media is messing with us. At least, our memories.

The distracting nature of modern media is having a terrible effect on what we learn.

The media is messing with us. At least, our memories.

Photographers crowd a press conference for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 2, 2019.

Photo by Greg Baker / AFP
  • Modern media isn't necessarily harming our memory systems though it is impacting what we remember.
  • We used to retain reams of valuable information; now we're more likely to memorize URLs and passwords.
  • The process of deep learning is being sacrificed to our addiction to novelty.

You'll likely have to be Gen X (or older) to understand this question: do you remember your childhood phone number? Educational neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath asks this very question in his recent article on memory. As my eyes ran over that opening sentence, ten digits immediately sprang to mind even though I left home in 1993.

Certain memories are so engrained we'll likely never forget them. Yet some information seems to stand the test of time. Seniors suffering from dementia can sometimes instantaneously recall songs from their childhood. Repeated listening somehow circumvents amyloid plaque buildup in their aging brains.

We learn through novel experiences, such as the hot stove we had no business touching. Trauma imprints quickly. For the most part, memories form thanks to the strengthening of preexisting synapses, as pointed out by Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb in 1949. The neurotransmitter glutamate becomes an epoxy across synapses. The more we strengthen that connection through repeated exposure, the stronger the memory.

The process of long-term potentiation (LTP) was introduced by Norwegian physiologist Terje Lømo in 1966. Receptor activation excites synapses. Glutamate screams across channels to ensure you remember. Fascinatingly, LTP is not a one-off. It's a process. Copies of your memories are reproduced over and over and over. That's why Grandma recalls yelling when the Beatles came on the radio even as she forgets your name. Music binds to the deepest part of self.

How Memory Works

Those are the neurological mechanics, in which repetition is the key to forming lasting memories. Before the advent of the internet, remembering played a much more prevalent role in our lives.

For millennia, humans held the stories of their tribe in their minds. Oral storytellers memorized hundreds of thousands of lines of verse, such as the Mahābhārata. As writing became more widespread and more people learned how to read, we had to remember less. Imams recite the Quran; most Muslims turn the pages. They don't need to memorize what's in their pocket.

Remembering takes time. As Horvath points out, we memorize better in short bursts. Sleeping between bouts of studying helps commit information to memory. In a data-drenched society that barely sleeps, how much we actually remember is a contentious issue.

Part of the problem is the exploitation of attentional capacities. Coining the term "deep work," computer science professor Cal Newport writes that switching from task to task trains your mind to "never tolerate an absence of novelty." A day of Web surfing is never as rewarding as accomplishing a pre-made list of tasks. You'll always feel drained and scattered mindlessly clicking around. How much information you retain while surfing is negligible.

As with ancient Indians memorizing shloka through recitation and repetition, the writer Nicholas Carr points to the discovery of the generation effect by cognitive psychologists in the 1970s. "People remember words much better when they actively recall them—when they generate them—than when they read them from a page." Retaining information is akin to physical exertion. Your muscles only get stronger when you use them.

How often do we stop and think deeply about a question before turning to Google? Convenience has a price. Horvath doesn't strike an apocalyptic tone, though he does point out we're more likely to memorize usernames and URLs than epic literature. Or any literature at all.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Engagement is currency in the attention economy. How many times have you repeated a headline without having actually read the article? Unless you grapple with the ideas presented after clicking, you're unlikely to retain the story. You missed an opportunity for contemplating nuance. At times, the gist is enough, but the gist can't be enough for everything.

Horvath concludes that our memory systems are still intact. The content of what we remember is troubling. Empty calories are not benign. Sugar has a real impact on our bodies. The same holds true with information. Horvath finishes with two questions:

"Do we like how we are currently using our memory? Do we like how this may be altering our learning, our discourse, our evolution?"

This inability to wrestle with complex topics is fueling a rise in conspiracy thinking. As Nature recently pointed out, coordinated efforts by anti-vaccination activists exploit fears during this pandemic, exploiting a pre-existing mistrust of media and government. While there are real issues to consider, the rate of conflation around topics such as science and public health is troubling. As the NY Times notes, this could have dire consequences if a vaccine for the novel coronavirus emerges.

Where we place our attention define what we learn. If, as Horvath suggests, the only information we retain are passwords, we must question how effective even having a memory is. In some ways, that's a more frightening prospect than losing it altogether.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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