Conquering Cyber Overload

Ruminations on productivity, creativity, and quality of life in our digital world.

Is it Alzheimer’s? Normal Aging? Or Simply Cyber Overload?

Is your brain functioning as well as it could be at your age?

Do you sometimes wonder if that thing you forgot or that name you can’t remember is the beginning of Alzheimer’s? If so, you’re not alone, judging by the turnout at a recent public health symposium. A UW Mini Med School presentation titled “Your Aging Brain and Alzheimer’s”(1) exceeded all attendance records, overflowing even the overflow auditorium. One of the reasons I started studying information overload and multitasking was that I was worried my own memory loss might be a warning sign that something was terribly amiss in my brain.

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I’m no Alzheimer’s expert, but I thought I’d share what I learned at that symposium about the normally aging brain (and how it differs from one that has Alzheimer’s.)

1. You’re not as good at remembering names—It’s normal aging if you can’t remember the name of an acquaintance you encounter in the store or of a movie-star or politician. However, if you can’t remember the names of close family members—that’s a warning sign of Alzheimer’s.

Graph from Klingberg (2009)
2. You have a smaller working memory. That’s normal. Research indicates that the capacity of working memory plateaus at the age of 25 and declines thereafter (2), so it becomes harder to hold that thought you just had.

3. You learn more slowly and need more repetitions—That’s normal aging. You have more trouble than you used to with free recall. You increasingly need reminders (like lists, alarms, and post-it notes). With normal aging, these reminders help, but with Alzheimer’s even these cues aren’t effective.

4. You may forget where you parked your car—in normal aging, this can happen, but at least you can remember that you forgot! Your meta-memory still works for you. In Alzheimer’s you lose this meta-memory.

So maybe I’ve reassured you that what you’re experiencing is normal. But is your brain functioning as well as it could be at your age? Could CyberOverload be contributing to these problems? And if so, how can you undo this interference?

Are you multitasking a lot? As I’ve described in previous posts, multitasking is essentially task switching. Although it impedes the speed, accuracy and quality of everyone’s work, it becomes more detrimental to our productivity as our working memory shrinks. That’s because we can hold less and less in abeyance when we switch tasks. So try cutting down on your multitasking.

Are you overloaded with information from all of your digital devices? The more you cram into your brain, the more interference there is. Give your aging brain a break by being choosier about what you force into it. Just because there’s an easy link to more information, does that new information add to or subtract from your ultimate objective? Take a second to evaluate whether that tantalizing information source is really relevant to what you’re looking for.

Give it a try: Try limiting your multitasking and information overload, and see if your brain doesn’t suddenly feel younger and stronger.

 

(1) Asthana, S., et al (2012). “Your Aging Brain and Alzheimer’s.” Mini Med School Presentation by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. April 11, 2012. Madison, WI.

 

(2) Klingberg, T. (2009). The overflowing brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory. (Translated by Neil Betteridge). London: Oxford University Press.

 

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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