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Before smartphones, our heads would have held a cache of phone numbers and our memories would contain a cognitive map, built up over time, which would allow us to navigate – for smartphone users, that is no longer true.
Our brains and our smartphones form a complex web of interactions: the smartphonification of life has been rising since the mid-2000s but was accelerated by the pandemic, as was internet use in general. Prolonged periods of stress, isolation and exhaustion – common themes since March 2020 – are well known for their impact on memory.
In a 2021 survey, 80% felt that their memories were worse than before the pandemic. We are – still – shattered, not just by Covid-19, but also by the miserable national and global news cycle. Many of us self-soothe with distractions like social media. Meanwhile, endless scrolling can, at times, create its own distress, and phone notifications and self-interrupting to check for them, also seem to affect what, how and if we remember.
Are we so reliant on smartphones that they will ultimately change how our memories work (sometimes called digital amnesia)?
Apps that make money by taking our attention are designed to interrupt us.
Smartphone use can even change the brain.
Cortical thinning is a normal part of growing up and then ageing, and in much later life can be associated with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, as well as migraines.
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