Keeping This on Your Phone Is Hurting Your Brain, Expert Warns


As you get older, you may notice your memory getting foggier. But Richard Restak, MD, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, is here to tell you that barring a serious cognitive condition, it doesn't have to be that way. Restak has written more than 20 books on memory and cognition, including his latest, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind. In it, he shares tips and exercises for protecting and enhancing your brainpower—and warns of one habit that may be seriously hurting it. Read on to learn the brain-busting mistake you could be making with your phone, and how you can undo the damage.

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Memory decline is not inevitable with age.

When it comes to aging and memory loss, everyone seems to have anecdotal evidence supporting the connection. Yet experts say that cognitive decline is not a part of normal aging, and far from a foregone conclusion. Absent a serious, neurodegenerative problem such as dementia, your absent-mindedness may be reversible through better memory maintenance.

Restak says that's because for many people, memory loss is the result of poor everyday habits surrounding memory. "The point of the book is to overcome the everyday problems of memory," which make these symptoms worse, Restak recently told The New York Times.

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"Working memory" is important to maintain, Restak says.

You've no doubt heard of long-term and short-term memory, but Restak says working memory, which functions between the two, is especially important to maintain. "Working memory is extensively involved in goal-directed behaviors in which information must be retained and manipulated to ensure successful task execution," explains a 2018 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. In other words, retaining this form of memory allows you to use new information more functionally—a benefit which can enhance your everyday life.

Restak also tells the Times that strengthening this form of memory helps protect against other forms of memory loss. By avoiding the "stumbling blocks that can lead to lost or distorted memories," you can maintain or even improve your cognitive function over time, he maintains.

Keeping this on your phone is a memory-busting mistake, he warns.

Misusing technology hurts your working memory in several ways, a phenomenon Retak refers to as "technological distortion." The neurologist warns that in particular, storing all of your most important information on your phone—times for meetings, friends' birthdays, phone numbers, and directions, for example—can lead to poorer cognitive ability over time.

Many are drawn to the convenience of storing this information on their devices. "Why bother to focus, concentrate and apply effort to visualize something when a cellphone camera can do all the work for you?" Restak muses in his book.

Yet the drawbacks are clear, he says. If you store everything digitally, "you don't know it," Restak warns. By no longer having to encode that information in memory, retrieve it later, and put it to use, you miss an opportunity to flex your cognitive muscles. Instead, it may be beneficial to rely less on apps and more on your mind—or even on a physical planner or calendar.

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Technology can hurt your memory in other ways, Restak says.

Besides our outsized reliance on technology for recalling important information, Restak says our devices can also impair cognition by pulling our attention in many directions at once. Over time, this degrades our ability to focus, even when technology isn't a factor. "In our day, the greatest impediment of memory is distraction," Restak says.

In fact, a wide body of recent research has busted the myth that we can multitask at all. In reality, we quickly flit our attention back and forth between tasks, making us less efficient at all of them. Restak suggests truly focusing on one thing at a time and trying to stay present—a strategy that should help you encode memories more successfully.

If you believe your memory lapses are a sign of a deeper problem, talk to your doctor about your concerns. Depending on the root cause, they may be able to offer additional interventions that slow or improve your symptoms.