Are You Forgetting What Day It Is?

Four ways to use technology when memory fails.

Posted May 13, 2020

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Are you forgetting what day it is during the pandemic? Most likely your schedule is out of whack, and there is less consistency with work, school, and activities. Weekends may be merging into weekdays. But maybe you are just getting older.

There is a widespread belief that as adults get older, their memory begins to fail. A recent article in The New York Times by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin entitled, "Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong" disputes this commonly held assertion. Levitin reports that memory fails in younger people and children, as well, and that age is not the major factor in memory loss. Instead, he asserts that slower processing speed, or what he describes as generalized cognitive slowing with age, is the culprit.

What Levitin doesn’t talk about is how individuals can use technology when memory fails as they age. Technology can support our memory skills and perhaps even maintain the processing speed of our brains to counteract these memory losses.

Your phone holds all sorts of supportive apps for memory. For example, Microsoft To-Do (formerly Wunderlist) is a simple tool to remind you of your “today” tasks as well as specific projects for work, home, and business. Consider using your Notes app on an iPhone when food shopping or remembering to serve the food you have prepared for a dinner party. 

It has been very easy to forget to do things during the COVID-19 quarantine. There are more pressing issues for most of us, so having technologies to remind us about events and tasks will be especially helpful.

Of course, all the memory tools in the world won’t help you to remember anything if you don't know how, when, and where to use them effectively or if you forget to use them. Having access to a powerful memory technology that is more reliable than your brain does not ensure that you’ll be able to remember what you need to do today. But if you make it easy to use and know how to find what you want to remember, your memory skills might never age. Just as many of us need to use memory strategies to increase the efficiency of our brain-based memory skills, we also need to do the same with technology. 

Here are four ways for effective use of technology when memory fails as you age:

Make it accessible. You might recall using the back of your hand to write down your homework in ink (even though your teacher said it would poison you) in order to remember homework. You used the back of your hand because it was always accessible. 

Given that 70% of adults always have a cellphone within arm's reach, why not use your cellphone as a supportive memory device? But access to your phone is not enough. It is important to develop the expertise to support your memory skills. Think of it as a go-to memory strategy, such as using a person’s name repeatedly in conversation to help you remember it. 

Make it fast, easy, and automatic. If you are going to rely on technology to be your digital memory, you will need to unload your memories quickly before you forget them. Working-memory capacities are measured in how much information you can hold and how long you can hold onto it. If you tend to forget something quickly, offloading it efficiently is important.

Levitin acknowledges that our ability for automatic restoration of the contents of short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30, suggesting that short-term memory supports and technology need to be fast, easy, and automatic. 

Given how many intrusive thoughts people are experiencing during the pandemic, it might be difficult. Accessibility helps, but you also need the ability to create a digital memory quickly. This could be done by snapping a quick picture, stating an immediate verbalization such as, “Hey, Alexa, remind me to...” or opening an app such as Microsoft To-Do and either typing or dictating what you need to remember.

Make it deliberate. You truly need to pay attention to remember something, whether you are using an app to support memory or if you are attempting to store information in long-term memory. Focus on what is most significant to you — a visual image, a verbal description, connecting to a feeling or an experience — then use your technology to help you support your memory.

You need to be very specific about what you want to remember and describe it in a way that is most salient to you so you can find it when you need it. Levitin suggests that getting information from short-term to long-term memory is based on “actively paying attention to the items that are in the ‘next thing to do’ file in your mind.” By paying attention deliberately, you encode your memory more fully.

Make it organized. This might be the most difficult part of using technology effectively to help you with memory as you age. Just because you wrote something down, took a picture of it, put it into an app, or listed it on your calendar, it doesn't mean that you will know where to find it when you go looking for it.

Being deliberate and attaching meaning to your memory is the first step in this process. Committing it to memory (your app) doesn’t ensure you’ll find it later, but deliberately considering how you might remember this information by attaching meaning, emotion, images, or anchor facts can help you to know where and how to look for it.

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For example, you might be thinking about preparing a recipe you made in the past but be unable to remember the exact name of the recipe or all of the ingredients. However, you can picture what it looks like and almost taste the flavors. Even if you used a memory aid such as Epicurious or NYTimes Cooking to save recipes, you’d probably need to sort through all of them to find it unless you had made an effort to recall specific ingredients, connected the recipe to other foods, or used an organized filing system in your cooking app. 

Technology can be a powerful support to our memories as we age. While some argue that using technology weakens our memories (can you remember your kid’s cellphone number?), futurists describe it as allowing us to do more with our brains, understanding, and thinking rather than cluttering our minds with random facts. 

If you have other tips, please share them in the comments section for other readers.