- Cognitive Offloading: Why Our Memory is Getting Worse and How to Fix It
I stood there with the handle of the bike in one hand and a water bottle in the other, undecided which route to take.
It was getting dark. I had no clue which part of the jungle I was stuck at. I was not sure where I missed the trail route or where my trail mates were. I do not even have the energy to walk anymore, let alone dragging the bike along with me. Fear and helplessness slowly started to engulf me. My heart started pounding; my vision became blurred. I was paralyzed to the spot, a menacing aura holding me in a tightening grip. A series of questions started racing through my mind.
What if I take the wrong route again?
Why did it happen to me?
How come I forgot the return route?
If only I could remember the route I took to reach here. But I could not.
That day, a few years ago, I got rescued by some fellow hikers, who showed me the nearest exit from the jungle.
That incident made me deeply think about my brain's memory capabilities. I realized how that was not the first time I forgot something I should have remembered. I have missed items on my shopping list because I could not recollect the items to buy. When I first met my wife, I forgot the name of the college my brother was going to. I once went to the garage to get a new pair of batteries, arranged the unordered boxes there, and came back empty-handed.
But I have not always been like this. I had a fine memory when I was young. Back then, my memory was very well appreciated by my friends and family. I used to go to unknown places without a map and could trace my way back. I could read a poem few times, and memorize it entirely.
So what changed?
As I grew older, I outsourced some of my memory to the Internet. I would ask the internet and it would happily answer, diminishing my power to remember things. I take help from maps to take me to a place, decaying my innate navigational skills.
Too much dependency on anything can make you helpless
In an experiment, researchers asked participants to copy 40 memorable factoids into a computer (for example: “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”). Half of the people in the experiment were told that their work would be saved on the computer; the other half were told that it would be erased. The researchers found that those who believed the computer had saved the list of facts were much worse at remembering.
And this is what happened exactly that day. While going from the parking to a point in the trail, I could always see my friends, and I followed them. My brain did not record the route in the memory, as it did not feel the need to, since my friends were always there. While returning back to the parking, my mates went too fast for me to catch up, and I was left with no memory of the exact route.
This process of depending on something else, or someone else, called cognitive offloading, seems harmless, but as multiple pieces of research prove, can seriously impact our ability to think, remember, and critically evaluate information. The more we depend on other things, the less we are using our innate abilities, the more helpless we become when we truly need our memory.
Some Neurological researchers have also said that atrophy of the hippocampus, the part that is associated with memory and spatial navigation, can result in an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The hiking incident was a wake-up call for me to change the way I observe and memorize things. It made me realize that my memory is not as good as it used to be. And like any other muscle in the body, it made me plan to work out my brain as well.
For the last few years, I have been spending time daily to exercise the brain and practice some of the research-proven activities that can improve my memory and brain well-being.
Playing a card game forces you to remember the previous cards, do a lot of mental calculations, hence activating the area of the brain responsible for memory. Studies also show evidence that a quick card game can lead to greater brain volume in several regions of the brain. The same study also found that a game of cards could improve memory and thinking skills.
I personally play an online card game called “29” which is not only interesting but very competitive. It is more popular in India though. Having the ability to play multiplayer with friends (or even random strangers) makes the game even more fascinating to play.
Other card games that I have tried and are really helpful are:
When we solely depend on GPS, it means we don’t spend the time working out and visualizing the journey; our brain gets lazy and doesn’t commit it to memory. So we need to slowly faze out this dependency.
I started by driving on my own to nearby places. When a bit farther, I would try to memorize the route previously and try to go on my own. I sometimes even did not take my phone along with me in a way to challenge my brain to remember the route.
Now I rarely need the help of any apps to help me with the normal daily routes. I realized that it was just a mental block that was preventing me to depend on my own brain for navigation.
In the last two years, one thing I practiced a lot was remembering the capital of each and every country. I also tried a game where I had to place the countries in their correct position on the world map. It took some time before I could answer all of them correctly.
You can learn something that you like. You can try to learn a new language, or a new sport, like golf or tennis. If you are a software engineer, you can try some new algorithms or a new language. You can try a new recipe.
Every day is a chance to learn something new.
When I was a child, I was never allowed a calculator for maths. All of the calculations were either mental or on paper. Now I cannot even add two three-digit numbers. That's the sad story of everyone I talk to, unfortunately.
Let's change that. Every time an opportunity comes to do a quick calculation, do not reach out for the calculator; Try it out mentally at first. There are multiple online strategies and tricks available that help to do these mentally. Try them out.
Research has shown that meditation can increase our brain's ability to process information. Studies from 2007 also suggest that mindfulness meditation can help engage new neural pathways, resulting in improved self-observational skills and increased mental flexibility.
I started out by sitting on my patio and focussing on my breathing. Every time a random thought comes, I listen to it, then slowly park it for later. Then I can come back to the breath. The normal response is to react to all your thoughts, and this keeps us ever busy in a sea of confusion. Meditation teaches us to attend to what is taking place within without reacting.
Do whatever works for you. But the idea is to focus on one thing and park all the other thoughts.
I have been practicing these for a few years now, and I can sincerely say that these have helped. I can drive without always using the map. I am getting better at recollecting movie actors from the name of the movie. I can go grocery shopping without always taking a list.
Technology is important, but it is also very crucial that we recognize and trust our body’s innate abilities. We are much better at remembering things than we think.
I will end this with a fascinating and inspiring story of Joshua Foer, a science writer, who wanted to understand and observe the winners at US Memory championships, learned from them, practiced some of their tricks, and finally went on to win the same competition next year.
- Date of publication:
- Thu, 04/22/2021 - 22:47
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