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Is your smartphone ruining your memory? A special report on the rise of ‘digital amnesia’ | Memory

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Last week, I missed a real-life meeting because I hadn’t set a reminder on my smartphone, leaving someone I’d never met before alone in a café. But on the same day, I remembered the name of the actor who played Will Smith’s aunt in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 (Janet Hubert). Memory is weird, unpredictable and, neuroscientifically, not yet entirely understood. When memory lapses like mine happen (which they do, a lot), it feels both easy and logical to blame the technology we’ve so recently adopted. Does having more memory in our pockets mean there’s less in our heads? Am I losing my ability to remember things – from appointments to what I was about to do next – because I expect my phone to do it for me? 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. Of those surveyed by memory researcher Catherine Loveday in 2021, 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.

So what happens when we outsource part of our memory to an external device? Does it enable us to squeeze more and more out of life, because we aren’t as reliant on our fallible brains to cue things up for us? Are we so reliant on smartphones that they will ultimately change how our memories work (sometimes called digital amnesia)? Or do we just occasionally miss stuff when we don’t remember the reminders?

Neuroscientists are divided. Chris Bird is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex and runs research by the Episodic Memory Group. “We have always offloaded things into external devices, like writing down notes, and that’s enabled us to have more complex lives,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with using external devices to augment our thought processes or memory processes. We’re doing it more, but that frees up time to concentrate, focus on and remember other things.” He thinks that the kind of things we use our phones to remember are, for most human brains, difficult to remember. “I take a photo of my parking ticket so I know when it runs out, because it’s an arbitrary thing to remember. Our brains aren’t evolved to remember highly specific, one-off things. Before we had devices, you would have to make a quite an effort to remember the time you needed to be back at your car.”

Professor Oliver Hardt, who studies the neurobiology of memory and forgetting at McGill University in Montreal, is much more cautious. “Once you stop using your memory it will get worse, which makes you use your devices even more,” he says. “We use them for everything. If you go to a website for a recipe, you press a button and it sends the ingredient list to your smartphone. It’s very convenient, but convenience has a price. It’s good for you to do certain things in your head.”

Hardt is not keen on our reliance on GPS. “We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus. Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression and other psychopathologies, but also certain forms of dementia. GPS-based navigational systems don’t require you to form a complex geographic map. Instead, they just tell you orientations, like ‘Turn left at next light.’ These are very simple behavioural responses (here: turn left) at a certain stimulus (here: traffic light). These kinds of spatial behaviours do not engage the hippocampus very much, unlike those spatial strategies that require the knowledge of a geographic map, in which you can locate any point, coming from any direction and which requires [cognitively] complex computations. When exploring the spatial capacities of people who have been using GPS for a very long time, they show impairments in spatial memory abilities that require the hippocampus. Map reading is hard and that’s why we give it away to devices so easily. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures that have other effects on your general cognitive functioning.”

Hardt doesn’t have data yet, but believes, “the cost of this might be an enormous increase in dementia. The less you use that mind of yours, the less you use the systems that are responsible for complicated things like episodic memories, or cognitive flexibility, the more likely it is to develop dementia. There are studies showing that, for example, it is really hard to get dementia when you are a university professor, and the reason is not that these people are smarter – it’s that until old age, they are habitually engaged in tasks that are very mentally demanding.” (Other scientists disagree – Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist who wrote the seminal Seven Sins Of Memory: How The Mind Forgets and Remembers, thinks effects from things like GPS are “task specific”, only.)

While smartphones can obviously open up whole new vistas of knowledge, they can also drag us away from the present moment, like it’s a beautiful day, unexperienced because you’re head down, WhatsApping a meal or a conversation. When we’re not attending to an experience, we are less likely to recall it properly, and fewer recalled experiences could even limit our capacity to have new ideas and being creative. As the renowned neuroscientist and memory researcher Wendy Suzuki recently put it on the Huberman Lab neuroscience podcast, “If we can’t remember what we’ve done, the information we’ve learned and the events of our lives, it changes us… [The part of the brain which remembers] really defines our personal histories. It defines who we are.”

Catherine Price, science writer and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, concurs. “What we pay attention to in the moment adds up to our life,” she says. “Our brains cannot multitask. We think we can. But any moment where multitasking seems successful, it’s because one of those tasks was not cognitively demanding, like you can fold laundry and listen to the radio. If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to anything else. That might seem like a throwaway observation, but it’s actually deeply profound. Because you will only remember the things you pay attention to. If you’re not paying attention, you’re literally not going to have a memory of it to remember.”

The Cambridge neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian has evidence of this, too. “In an experiment in 2010, three different groups had to complete a reading task,” she says. “One group got instant messaging before it started, one got instant messaging during the task, and one got no instant messaging, and then there was a comprehension test. What they found was that the people getting instant messages couldn’t remember what they just read.”

Price is much more worried about what being perpetually distracted by our phones – termed “continual partial attention” by the tech expert Linda Stone – does to our memories than using their simpler functions. “I’m not getting distracted by my address book,” she says. And she doesn’t believe smartphones free us up to do more. “Let’s be real with ourselves: how many of us are using the time afforded us by our banking app to write poetry? We just passively consume crap on Instagram.” Price is from Philadelphia. “What would have happened if Benjamin Franklin had had Twitter? Would he have been on Twitter all the time? Would he have made his inventions and breakthroughs?

“I became really interested in whether the constant distractions caused by our devices might be impacting our ability to actually not just accumulate memories to begin with, but transfer them into long-term storage in a way that might impede our ability to think deep and interesting thoughts,” she says. “One of the things that impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage is distraction. If you get distracted in the middle of it” – by a notification, or by the overwhelming urge to pick up your phone – “you’re not actually going to have the physical changes take place that are required to store that memory.”

It’s impossible to know for sure, because no one measured our level of intellectual creativity before smartphones took off, but Price thinks smartphone over-use could be harming our ability to be insightful. “An insight is being able to connect two disparate things in your mind. But in order to have an insight and be creative, you have to have a lot of raw material in your brain, like you couldn’t cook a recipe if you didn’t have any ingredients: you can’t have an insight if you don’t have the material in your brain, which really is long term memories.” (Her theory was backed by the 92-year-old Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist and biochemist Eric Kandel, who has studied how distraction affects memory – Price bumped into him on a train and grilled him about her idea. “I’ve got a selfie of me with a giant grin and Eric looking a bit confused.”) Psychologist professor Larry Rosen, co-author (with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley) of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, also agrees: “Constant distractions make it difficult to encode information in memory.”

Smartphones are, of course, made to hijack our attention. “The apps that make money by taking our attention are designed to interrupt us,” says Price. “I think of notifications as interruptions because that’s what they’re doing.”

For Oliver Hardt, phones exploit our biology. “A human is a very vulnerable animal and the only reason we are not extinct is that we have a superior brain: to avoid predation and find food, we have had to be really good at being attentive to our environment. Our attention can shift rapidly around and when it does, everything else that was being attended to stops, which is why we can’t multitask. When we focus on something, it’s a survival mechanism: you’re in the savannah or the jungle and you hear a branch cracking, you give your total attention to that – which is useful, it causes a short stress reaction, a slight arousal, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. It optimises your cognitive abilities and sets the body up for fighting or flighting.” But it’s much less useful now. “Now, 30,000 years later, we’re here with that exact brain” and every phone notification we hear is a twig snapping in the forest, “simulating what was important to what we were: a frightened little animal.”

Smartphone use can even change the brain, according to the ongoing ABCD study which is tracking over 10,000 American children through to adulthood. “It started by examining 10-year-olds both with paper and pencil measures and an MRI, and one of their most interesting early results was that there was a relationship between tech use and cortical thinning,” says Larry Rosen, who studies social media, technology and the brain. “Young children who use more tech had a thinner cortex, which is supposed to happen at an older age.” 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.

Obviously, the smartphone genie is out of the bottle and has run over the hills and far away. We need our smartphones to access offices, attend events, pay for travel and to function as tickets, passes and credit cards, as well as for emails, calls and messages. It’s very hard not to have one. If we’re worried about what they – or the apps on them – might be doing to our memories, what should we do?

Rosen discusses a number of tactics in his book. “My favourites are tech breaks,” he says, “where you start by doing whatever on your devices for one minute and then set an alarm for 15 minutes time. Silence your phone and place it upside down, but within your view as a stimulus to tell your brain that you will have another one-minute tech break after the 15-minute alarm. Continue until you adapt to 15 minutes focus time and then increase to 20. If you can get to 60 minutes of focus time with short tech breaks before and after, that’s a success.”

“If you think your memory and focus have got worse and you’re blaming things like your age, your job, or your kids, that might be true, but it’s also very likely due to the way you’re interacting with your devices,” says Price, who founded Screen/Life Balance to help people manage their phone use. As a science writer, she’s “very much into randomly controlled trials, but with phones, it’s actually more of a qualitative question about personally how it’s impacting you. And it’s really easy to do your own experiment and see if it makes a difference. It’s great to have scientific evidence. But we can also intuitively know: if you practice keeping your phone away more and you notice that you feel calmer and you’re remembering more, then you’ve answered your own question.”

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Lego releases Atari Video Computer System set • The Register

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Lego has followed up its Nintendo Entertainment System retro throwback with one celebrating the Atari Video Computer System (VCS).

The set, retailing at a heart-stopping $239.99 (£209.99 in the UK), is a non-functional replica of the iconic game console, although only the model with four switches rather than the six of others in the range. Not that those switches do an awful lot in Lego form.

In fact, compared to the cheaper Nintendo Entertainment System set (with all its twiddly technic bits and separate television), we’d have to describe the VCS set as a bit of a disappointment if it weren’t for the nostalgia factor.

The plastic bricks also fail to include a mock cartridge of the best game on the VCS, Combat. Asteroids, Centipede, and Adventure simply don’t cut it in comparison even with the reproduction of the hopelessly optimistic cover art so beloved by ’80s and ’90s designers and some neat Lego vignettes themed after the games.

Lego also opted to skip E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, described as the worst game ever. We can imagine an appropriate model for that example and the impact it had on the industry of the time.

Still, the 2,500-plus pieces will make for a fun build and includes a replica of the classic Atari joystick and a mini-fig scale 1980s room which pops up when the front is slid forward.

The price does seem high for what is effectively a plastic throwback to simpler times. Then again, other attempts to recreate that retro magic could cost you a lot more and potentially leave you without even a pile of plastic bricks to play with.

Or one could always take the plastic assembly and stick something like a Raspberry Pi (preloaded with an emulator) into it. Similar things were done with Lego’s Nintendo Entertainment System where the Technic guts of the television were removed and replaced with a Pi and an LCD screen to create something on which one can play games (ROM ownership notwithstanding).

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It is a shame that Lego did not see fit to include a television with the Atari VCS in the way it did with the NES, and also limited interaction to a pop-up 1980s room and some switches. However, the design looks good and is a reminder of an age when sticking something that looked like wood on the front of the console and squeezing games into kilobytes rather than gigabytes was state of the art.

Otherwise there are many examples of the VCS that can be had on various auction sites for considerably less than Lego’s asking price that are a good deal more interactive. ®

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4 reasons hybrid working looks set to stay for young professionals

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From priorities to practicalities, Dr Amanda Jones of King’s College London explains why hybrid working may be here to stay and outlines the pitfalls that younger employees will need to avoid.

Click here to visit The Conversation.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

We’re in the middle of a remote working revolution. In the UK, though remote working was slowly growing before the pandemic, in 2020 the number of people working from home doubled.

While this rapid rise can be explained by Covid lockdowns, a recent survey my colleagues and I conducted with 2,000 London workers found that six in 10 employees still regularly work from home despite restrictions no longer being in place. And most don’t want that to change.

Findings from other parts of the world similarly point to a substantial increase in the number of work days being undertaken from home.

For young professionals, the shift has been particularly significant. Before the pandemic, employees in their 20s were by far the least likely to work from home.

In 2022, 64pc of 16 to 24-year-olds we surveyed reported working at home for at least part of the week. This figure is in line with 25 to 49-year-olds (65pc) and in fact higher than for people over 50 (48pc).

Other research also shows that young professionals now engage in hybrid working – dividing their time between their home and their workplace – and may prefer this model to being in the office full time.

US and European data shows that around four in 10 jobs can be conducted from home. But this figure may be higher if we consider that some jobs could be at least partly done from home. In particular, jobs in finance and insurance, information and communication and education are among the most conducive to being performed remotely.

Technologies which support remote working, such as Zoom and Slack, have been available for a number of years. While the pandemic has served as a catalyst for the rise in remote working among younger employees, I would argue that other factors have also contributed to this shift – some of which were already evident before the pandemic.

Importantly, each of these factors suggest this change to the way young professionals work is here to stay.

1. Priorities

Evidence suggests that even before the pandemic, young people were becoming more focused on their own goals, wanted greater flexibility and control, and sought a better work-life balance compared with previous generations. The reasons for this may be related to the changing nature of organisations and careers, which I’ll discuss later.

Our own and other research indicates that remote working, especially working from home (as opposed to, say, at client sites), can boost feelings of flexibility and control and enhance work-life balance. So working remotely could help younger people achieve these goals in a way that traditional working arrangements can’t.

In fact, research indicates that many young people would now rather switch jobs than compromise on the flexibility they gain from hybrid working. So for employers, supporting hybrid working may be necessary to attract and retain the best employees.

2. Practicalities

Across all age groups, participants in our research picked avoiding the commute as the biggest benefit of working remotely. While this has long been a recognised advantage of remote working, it’s important to note that we surveyed London workers – and the commute may be less of an issue for people in other places.

Aside from the time and hassle involved in commuting, travelling to work every day can be expensive. The cost of working in the office goes up if you also factor in lunches, coffees and after-work social activities.

This may be difficult for younger people – who are contending with the rising costs of living, often on lower salaries – to manage. Working remotely can help reduce spending, making it an attractive option – and even a potential lifeline – for younger employees.

3. Career trajectories

Studies show that a move towards less hierarchical, more efficient and flexible organisations results in a “new deal” of employment. Employers no longer guarantee job security and progression for employees, but gain their commitment by providing opportunities – including training programmes – that enhance their employability.

The onus then moves to employees to manage their own career progression, which remote working may help them with. For example, we know working from home can reduce distractions and improve productivity.

Taken with the commuting time saved, young professionals may have more time to dedicate to development opportunities, such as studying for additional qualifications. This could increase their attractiveness in the job market.

Indeed, young professionals seem to be the most likely to switch jobs. If they don’t expect to remain with an organisation long term, they may be less motivated to build strong relationships with colleagues and managers, and unwilling to put their own goals aside for those of the organisation.

4. Managers’ behaviour

Research shows many more managers now work remotely compared with before the pandemic. This change has two important effects.

First, managers who work remotely are likely to find it harder to stop juniors from doing the same. Managers’ ability to monitor and develop their junior staff in person, a common reason for prohibiting remote work in the past, is also reduced if managers are away from the office themselves.

Second, as more managers work remotely, younger employees may feel more confident that doing so won’t prevent them achieving success. Managers serve as role models to junior employees and evidence shows that younger professionals seek success by copying role models’ behaviour.

Avoiding the pitfalls of hybrid working

Despite the positives, younger employees, with comparatively limited experience and networks, may face disproportionately negative outcomes from remote working in terms of recognition, development and networking opportunities.

So if you’re a young professional working remotely, how can you avoid the pitfalls of hybrid working?

Setting your own goals can keep motivation and performance high. Meanwhile, proactively communicating your challenges and achievements to senior and peer-level colleagues can ensure that you receive guidance and recognition.

It’s a good idea to plan some of your time in the office to coordinate with team members or managers. At the same time, it’s useful to try to schedule office visits on different days of the week. This can help maintain key relationships but also help build networks through bumping into colleagues you don’t necessarily work as closely with.

Finally, upping attendance at external conferences and events could increase your value to the organisation through encouraging innovation and fresh ideas, while keeping you aware of external employment opportunities.

The Conversation

By Dr Amanda Jones

Dr Amanda Jones is a lecturer in organisational behaviour and human resource management at King’s College London.

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Kids’ tech: the best children’s gadgets for summer holidays | Gadgets

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With the long school summer holiday well under way, you may need a bit of help keeping the kids entertained. From walkie-talkies and cameras to tablets, robot toys and fitness trackers, here are some of the best kid-aimed tech to keep the little (and not-so-little) ones occupied.

Robot toys

Sphero Mini – about £50

Sphero Mini robotic ball.
Sphero Mini robotic ball. Photograph: Bryan Rowe/Sphero

Lots of tech toys are fads but my longtime favourite has stood the test of time as a modern update to remote control fun. Sphero is a ball you control using a smartphone or tablet, and has hidden depths, with games and educational elements also available.

The mini Sphero ball is a lot of fun to drive around and small enough that overexuberant indoor excursions won’t result in broken furniture and scuffed-up paintwork. The Sphero Play app has games, while the Sphero Edu app is great at fostering creative learning.

Kids or big kids can learn to program, follow examples, get the robot to do all sorts of things, or go deeper and write some code for it in JavaScript. Higher-end versions such as the £190 BOLT take the educational elements to the next level, too.

Tablets

Amazon Fire 7 Kids – about £110

Amazon Fire 7 Kids edition tablet.
Amazon Fire 7 Kids edition tablet. Photograph: Amazon

If you would rather not lend your precious breakable phone or iPad to your little ones, Amazon’s practically indestructible Kids edition tablets could be just the ticket.

The cheapest and smallest Fire 7 has just been updated and is available in a range of bright-coloured cases with a pop-out stand. If your offspring do manage to break it, Amazon will replace it for free under its two-year “worry-free” guarantee.

It does all the standard tablet things such as movies, apps, games, a web browser if you want it, and parental controls to lock it, set time limits and age filters. There’s even an option restricting access to curated child-safe sites and videos but it doesn’t have access to the Google Play store, only Amazon’s app store.

The Kids edition comes with a one-year subscription to Amazon Kids+ (£3 to £7 a month afterwards), which is a curated collection of child-friendly text and audio books, movies, TV shows and educational apps.

The larger £140 Fire HD 8 and £200 Fire HD 10 are available in Kids versions, too, if you want something bigger, or Amazon’s new Kids Pro tablets start at £100 with additional features aimed at school-age children.

Alternatives include LeapFrog’s various educational tablets, which are fine for younger children, or hand-me-down or refurbished iPads (from £150) in robust cases, which can be locked down with some parental controls.

Cameras

VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 – about £39

VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 kids’ camera in pink.
VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 kids’ camera in pink. Photograph: VTech

Before the advent of smartphones, standalone cameras were the way we visually documented our lives, and they still can be a bit of creative fun and inspiration for kids.

The VTech Kidizoom Duo 5.0 is a “my first digital camera” of sorts made of rugged plastic and simple in operation, which VTech reckons is suitable for three- to nine-year-olds. It captures 5MP photos of reasonable quality and can shoot from the back for selfies, too, all viewable on a 2.4in screen.

The optical viewfinder helps them line up the shot, which they can transform with fun filters and effects. It even shoots video, too. The kid-centric nature of it might turn off older children but every award-winning photographer has to start somewhere before the smartphone takes over.

It needs an SD card for storage and takes four AA batteries at a time, and chews through them fast, so buy some rechargeables to help save money and the planet.

For older children, rugged and waterproof action cams could be the way to go, shooting video and photos. Budget no-brand cams cost from about £80 but secondhand or refurbished models from the big boys such as GoPro and DJI go for about £100 and on eBay and elsewhere.

Fitness trackers

Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 – from about £55

Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 Star Wars edition.
Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 Star Wars edition. Photograph: Garmin

Your child may not need any encouragement to tear about the place but if you are after a gadget to “gamify” and reward their activity – as well as giving them a smartwatch-esque gadget to play with – the Garmin Vivofit Jr 3 could be a winner for ages four and up.

Its watch-like form comes in various themes and designs, including with various Star Wars, Marvel and Disney characters, with custom watchfaces to choose from. The user-replaceable coin-cell battery lasts a year, so you don’t have to worry about charging it. Water-resistance to 50 metres means swimming should be no problem either.

It tracks steps, activity and sleep with motivational messaging. It has mini games to play once your child has hit their goals, and can all be managed from a parent’s phone or tablet, so you can keep an eye on their data. Parents can even set goals, competitions with their own activity levels, chore reminders and tasks that can earn virtual coins for them to trade for rewards with you.

It is button-operated rather than touchscreen, and the backlight doesn’t stay on long to preserve the battery.

If you are a user of Google’s Fitbit trackers yourself, then the firm’s Ace 3 (£50) means you can compete on activity, but it needs charging every seven or so days. Other cheaper adult-focused fitness trackers such as the Xiaomi Mi Smart Band 6 (about £29) may be better for older children.

Walkie-talkies

Motorola T42 Talkabout – about £35 for three

Motorola Talkabout T42 two-way radios.
Motorola Talkabout T42 two-way radios. Photograph: Motorola Solutions

Walkie-talkies are a great replacement for phones, allowing kids and big kids to keep in touch without fear of fees or smashed screens.

There are plenty of child-centric options available with various character themes but basic units usually work better. Motorola’s T42 Talkabout comes in various colours and multipacks.

They are simple to set up, with a pairing button and multiple channel selection to find a clear one. Once going, just push to talk, even over long distances. Their quoted 4km range might be a bit ambitious but they should be good for at least 500 metres in urban environments, or much further in the open air.

They take three AAA batteries each, which last about 18 hours of talking or roughly three to four days in active use, so you might need a small army of rechargeable batteries.

They have a belt clip and loop for hooking to a carabiner (metal loop) or similar, and are fairly rugged, too, so should survive being launched across a room or two.

Nestling’s camouflage walkie-talkies (about £26) are also a popular choice but there are lots of choices under £30 available on the high street.

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