Memory Block


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Seemingly harmless actions such as updating a Facebook status, tweeting, or employing other forms of social media could set-up the brain’s consciousness for a potential cyber-hijacking.

Despite the fact that a digital sojourn through a networking site might seem as mind-clearing as a walk in the park, a new study conducted by researchers at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology suggests exactly the opposite. An idle brain is vital to maintaining mental health, and a constant smattering of sensory overload could be preventing this necessary moment of stasis from occurring.

“Our brains need to rest, just as our muscles need to rest after a hard workout,” leading Swedish researcher Erik Fransen tells BTR. “If we don’t allow this rest then we get tired and our capacity for doing great things declines.”

Fransen is a professor in computer science at KTH and has spent years investigating short term memory in the human brain alongside treatments for diseased neurons. He confirmed that the findings from his recent study suggest less information can be retained in the mind during interaction with social media.

The heart of the problem exists within the confines of a daily phenomenon called “working memory.” This system of the brain is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “short-term” memory formation. Such retention of information may only last for an average of 20 seconds, but is integral to our communication abilities.

“It’s what allows us to actually sift through sensory information and react to it,” says Fransen. “But it’s something that needs to be reinforced through practice and daily moments of relaxation.”

The working memory is, at best, capable of storing an average of three to four thoughts “online” at once. While surfing a site like Facebook, the brain struggles to hold onto these, and as a result the ability to process information also declines.

Augmentation between active states and technology raises serious concerns, but the relationship is not necessarily so black-and-white.

Apparently our memory for Facebook posts is much more powerful than our ability to remember human faces or sentences from books. Academics Dr. Laura Mickes from the University of Warwick and Nicholas Christenfeld from UC San Diego recently conducted a survey testing the memory capacity for students while they used social media.

“I was surprised by the way that Facebook posts seem to stick in people’s minds,” Christenfeld tells BTR. “One might imagine, and many have asserted, that they are just trivial ephemera–random inconsequential thoughts that, especially when produced by a stranger, would have no value or interest. But people’s memory for them is astounding.”

Just how astounding? After the first memory test, researchers discovered that subjects’ recollection of Facebook posts was nearly one-and-a-half times as strong as that of sentences from books. The second test demonstrated that the participants’ memory of these same social media posts was close to two-and-a-half times more powerful than that of faces.

Christenfeld has a theory to help explain why these results continue to occur. It doesn’t matter that online posts are incomplete thoughts, or that they don’t seem to reveal particularly exciting or novel ideas. What is important, however, is that they are written in a form of language that appears to be tuned to how our minds work.

“These natural, largely unfiltered emanations of others’ minds are the exact sorts of things that readily penetrate our own minds and lodge there,” says Christenfeld.

Carefully-constructed language is still clearly rich with intellectual merit. Characteristics of beauty, precision, and concision, for example, might inspire us to new levels of understanding, but being slightly artificial they don’t seem to be quite as memorable (although quite likely more worth memorizing, Christenfeld notes).

Facebook posts aren’t the only example of this occurrence. The comments sections of news articles have been found to be more memorable than not only the story itself, but also the headline. While Christenfeld and Mickes have yet to examine tweets, they assure that such investigation would likely yield similar discoveries.

According to Christenfeld, the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and the like is not the result of chance happenstance.

“As the language of disseminating writing is made easier and easier–easier than carving stone, than setting hot lead, than operating a mimeograph machine, than even a dot-matrix printer–the language that people use shifts toward this natural form that resonates so well.”