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Digital Dementia – The Cognitive Cost of “Smart” Phones

Not so long ago, people knew the phone numbers, addresses, birthdates, and anniversaries of family and friends. Kids used to spend plenty of time just daydreaming, inventing, painting. People wrote songs and poetry with pen on paper. Parents did not have to limit “screen time” or force kids to play outside as if they were being punished. In contrast, today’s kids spend more time indoors watching videos, playing video games, “Googling” on the computer, or smart phones. Most play dates and sleepovers can include screen time even when “camping” at RV resorts where Wi-Fi is as much of a must-have next to utilities and sewage hook-ups.

Technology has made information readily available to most people on the planet, and has advanced many professions, scientific research, even hobbies. Unfortunately, the overuse of technology has diminished our cognitive ability to memorize what we used to consider basic information. We used to recall pages of chunked information - a collection of a series of 3 or 4 number groupings such as area codes (3) phone numbers (3+4), bank account and credit card numbers, etc. Now our smart phones have all our “contact” information available with a swipe or tap of a finger.

In 2012, Manfred Spitzer, a neuroscientist coined the term “Digital Dementia” (in his book by this same name), to point out how our dependence on technology has diminished our information processing and retention. By “outsourcing” these neurologic functions, we have atrophied areas of grey matter and we are now more prone to depression, PTSD, and dementias.

The more we rely on mobile devices for downloading and offloading information, the more we weaken our brain’s aptitude and capacity for retaining and recalling the information. The fundamental architectural differences between computers and brains is that the machine has different modules for processing and storage of information, whereas the brain caries out both functions with the same structures by way of neurons. Therefore, brains get better with more storage of information, as this becomes knowledge. To summarize, computers download information, but brains construct knowledge.

The adage “use it or lose it” is very appropriate when it comes to exercising our higher cognitive and computational abilities. Avid readers, Sudoku and crossword puzzle fans (are proactive learners) have an advantage over people who prefer getting their information from video or audio sources through documentaries and books on tape (passive learners).

The good news is, we can improve our brain fitness by reading, constructing puzzles, learning a foreign language or instrument. Preferably, activities that utilize both sides of the body and brain such as juggling are more effective. We can once again learn the phone numbers of loved ones – in case we lose our phone.

However, if you have been told your “executive functioning” is impaired whether by injury, illness or aging, an occupational therapist can help you develop strategies to improve your home and community safety and independence. You have a choice – choose an expert in this field and don’t wait, INTEGRATE YOUR LIFE TODAY!

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