Use It, Don’t Lose It—Preserve Your Memory and Your Imagination

why your gadgets might be impairing your memory over time

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Today, our Smartphones can all but guarantee that we never miss an important meeting or fall behind on our payments. However, our over-reliance on technology may be hurting us in the long run, when it comes to memory and cognition. Dr. Restak provides some fun exercises to re-invigorate your brain.

Young woman looking at her phone in cafe with her laptop and coffee
An over-reliance on technology to track important events and to-do lists can hamper your brain’s ability to use memory to recall these details due to infrequent use. Photo by Foxy burrow / Shutterstock

Hippocampal Atrophy

Memory and imagination go hand-in-hand. When your memory is impaired through disuse, your imagination suffers—and vice versa. Thankfully, you can take active measures to preserve both.

First, it’s important to understand the neurological mechanism responsible for memories. The hippocampus—a portion of the brain located in the temporal lobe of each cerebral cortex—is the starting point for all memories. Hippocampal disease is always accompanied by disturbances in memory, with Alzheimer’s disease being one of the most common. 

Mild hippocampal atrophy also occurs in people with depression. As depression gets better through antidepressants, the size of the hippocampus begins to normalize as memory improves or at least returns to its state before depression occured. 

“I use a test with patients,” Dr. Restak said. “I give them four to five items to remember like ‘apple, tie, pen, house, car’ and see if they can repeat them five or 10 minutes later.”

This test measures how well the hippocampus is able to encode information. Encoding is the process through which information is converted into a memory. 

The hippocampus is responsible for both recalling the past and imagining the future. In order to imagine a future event, you have to draw upon memories of many kinds of past events. Both memory and imagination are impaired in Alzheimer’s disease, which involves the extreme loss of memory, and by extension, the loss of self.

Memory and Imagination Exercises

Our daily lives provide ample evidence of how memory and imagination are intertwined, and you can use that to your advantage. For example, creative writing classes often use memory exercises as a way to foster imagination.

An aspiring novelist will be instructed to go into a restaurant and listen to conversations to get a feel for the exact way people talk. He can use  memories of those conversations later in a novel.

Similarly, a filmmaker can take photos everywhere he goes using even a simple phone camera, capturing highly specific images, and draw upon these images as inspiration when creating a storyboard for a film.

Carrying around a camera—or a journal, for that matter—can be a useful practice for anyone, though, not just artists. It will help strengthen both your imagination and your memory. 

“I have a small camera that takes still pictures primarily, but it also takes little movies,” Dr. Restak said. “I’ll take a 15-second clip of something, and then later I’ll look at it. Then later, I’ll try to remember what I saw and use that to try to enrich my memory.”

Downside of Technology

While it may be tempting to rely entirely on electronic memory aids such as digital voice recorders and phone calendars, the issue is that this would lead to disuse atrophy in your brain. This concern of cognitive decline caused by an over-reliance on external devices is not relegated to our modern age.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates refers to the Egyptian god Thamus when discussing the invention of writing: “This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those men who learn it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.”

Today’s disuse atrophy comes from technology: Nothing has to be remembered. However, disuse atrophy can be overcome by deliberate efforts to improve your memory. Such efforts help stave off Alzheimer’s disease, hone your attentional abilities, strengthen your imagination, and link memory with other cognitive processes such as learning and creativity. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.