Saturday, February 26, 2011

Memory Overload

The other day, while working in my office, I had an experience that we all have from time to time.

I usually have my laptop open to a manuscript I'm writing and also have my desktop computer turned on to check email or to use the internet to search for information.  As I was writing a sentence on my laptop, I realized that I needed to do a quick fact check.  I turned and scooted my chair over to my desktop computer to search for the information I needed. As I moved to do this task, I glanced at my watch to gauge how much time I had until lunch...and had a few other random thoughts. This all happened in a span of 1 or 2 seconds. By the time I touched the mouse connected to my desktop computer, I had forgotten why I was switching from laptop to desktop. Annoyed, I turned back to my laptop and looked at the last sentence I had written...and this, of course, jogged my memory, and I quickly performed the necessary search.

When these things happen, I put them down to a "senior moment".  People often experience this when they are doing some activity in one room and decide to take a moment to do something else in another room.  By the time you reach the other room, you've forgotten why you went there in the first place. How often have you opened the refrigerator to get something and end up standing there staring, trying to remember what it was you wanted? 

These events happened to me when I was younger, but not frequently.  It still doesn't happen frequently, but when it does, it is scarier now.  From reading about the brain and cognition, however, I know that what is happening has to do with short-term memory and that it is not uncommon to fail to incorporate certain information into short-term memory---hence these memory lapses.  We are told not to worry if you forget where you put your keys; only if you forget what your keys are for is there likely a serious problem.

Some think that these little lapses increase as our memory system becomes overloaded with information.  With the vast amounts of information coming into our brains via digital communication systems and electronic toys, we are perhaps suffering from cognitive overload.  At least I hope that's the explanation. It certainly makes sense. I often feel that to learn some new fact....really learn it and retain it, get it into long-term memory...I need to make room for it by eliminating some other bit of information.  I don't remember feeling this way when I was a student, despite the fact that I was learning and memorizing lots of things.  There seemed to be lots of capacity in my brain.  But during my student years, the information overload we are now experiencing was still years away....

I've also noticed that older people sometimes have difficulty performing a task (e.g., driving) and talking about a complex topic. Their attention is split between two fairly complex operations, and they have trouble performing one or both well.  The term multi-tasking is often invoked as a positive process, i.e., the ability to multi-task is seen as being advantageous.  I doubt that it is. In fact, I would suggest that your short-term memory is being overloaded while multi-tasking so that whatever you are doing, especially if it depends on learning something new, is being negatively affected by the other distractions. It may not feel this way to you because the effect may be subtle, e.g., taking you ten percent longer to complete the primary task than if you had no other distractions.

Anyway, I've decided that I need to minimize the cognitive overload by focusing on one task at a time, paying attention to what I'm doing at that moment, and not mentally running in multiple directions.


Anonymous said...

Once as a postdoc (and pretty young) I thought I was being very efficient - multitasking on my two computers in a very similar way to what you're talking about plus going back and forth via e-mail with someone about a collaborative project. You know being a busy, efficient scientist and feeling pretty pleased with myself - until I realized I had just "refilled" my desk drawer, not the coffee cup I meant to aim for. I've tried to focus more on one task at a time - it saves the furniture in any case.

Anonymous said...

There is actually a good article in last week's newsweek on brain freeze and explains how it has become hard for us to make many easy decisions and how info overload might lead to us making bad decisions - scary