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The Goldfish Effect: why we’re struggling with forgetfulness

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Smartphones and social media deliver a wealth of information, but they are also sending an overload to our senses. While we stay connected in lockdown, are we forgetting other things?

Hands up if one or more of the following scenarios sound familiar.

You enter a room, and almost immediately forget why you went there in the first place. Ten minutes later, you find yourself sitting on the corner of the bed, deep in a Facebook thread on your phone.

Later that day you misplace your keys, and lose your train of thought in a phone conversation with a colleague.

That evening, you decide to watch a movie only to lose interest midway through and start mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.

It’s likely that at this point, there are more than a few hands raised.

So, what is this phenomenon that is seemingly taking over our minds?

Let’s start with the good news. Since the introduction of smartphones over a decade ago, we have access to more information than ever, with headlines at our fingertips and a deluge of content vying for internet users’ attention.

People have become incredibly reliant on smartphones for both information and entertainment: smartphone app developer Delvv found that 85 percent of respondents in a recent survey said their smartphone was an integral part of the lives, and in a separate survey 91 percent said their smartphone was as important in their life as their car.

The bad news is that this information overload—trying to take in and respond to too much information—is causing forgetfulness, fatigue, and difficulty with focus. In short, our ability to concentrate has been blown to pieces.

According to experts, this is because our brains have begun to imitate the internet browsers we see on a daily basis. Just as you can always open more tabs in your browser, we can now cut short one thought and open a new one. Labelled ‘The Goldfish effect’; social media, smartphones and the constant work cycle have essentially left the human mind with an attention span equivalent to that of a goldfish.

It’s a problem that has likely surged as the COVID-19 pandemic has locked many parts of the country down and we turn to our phones more than ever for connection. Uncertainty, isolation and a rapidly changing news cycle has seen people take to their phones constantly, whether it’s to stay up to date on restrictions, keep in touch with loved ones or order necessities while isolating.

Canberra clinical neuropsychologist Andrea Murray said there is new evidence to suggest that extensive social media and smartphone usage has a negative impact on our attention and memory systems by changing the way our brain processes incoming information.

“Social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram are designed in such a way that many things occur simultaneously, which forces us into a phenomenon known as ‘media multitasking’,” she says.

“Contrary to mainstream belief, the human mind struggles to process more than one thing at a time. If we force our brain to multitask, it becomes quickly overwhelmed and overloaded.”

“While we may feel as if we are getting many things done at once, what is actually happening is that a little of one task is done, then a little of another task is done and so on and so forth. But everything ends up taking much longer to complete because we have to take into consideration the time it takes to switch back and forth between each task, and the time it takes us to refocus each time.”

Alarmingly, the effects of a dysfunctional attention system are widespread throughout the brain, as the attention system is closely linked to all other cognitive systems, including our memory.

If our attention is working optimally, says Andrea, our memory hardware is able to effectively encode new information and retrieve old information. If it is not, then the encoding mechanism in the brain becomes faulty, and we have difficulty laying down new memories—hence, the reason you might have forgotten that deadline or dinner reservation.

Extensive social media use may also be detrimental in other ways: according to Andrea, that ‘instant gratification’ we get from posting an image can do serious damage to our wellbeing.

“Every time you get a new like or new follower your reward centre in the brain releases dopamine, the same feel-good neurotransmitter that is released when you eat chocolate or have sex,” she says.

“Because of the instantly gratifying nature of this interaction with social media you want to return again and again. The problem with extensive use is that when you come back to your reality, it may not provide you with the same level or frequency of gratification, and in comparison, real-life can feel a tad mundane.”

“In some people, this may wreak havoc with their day-to-day mood, and ultimately affect mental health and wellbeing.”

Some helpful ways to increase our attention span and overall sense of wellbeing include any mindful activity that focuses your brain in the present moment, for example, meditation, exercise or even shopping.

“When we are present, we increase our brain’s ability to take in information because all of our ‘information channels’ (i.e., our senses) are alert and active,” Andrea says.

“By training the brain to stay for longer and longer in the present moment, and gently pulling it back when it wanders off, we exercise the muscles of our attention system. And because of the close link between the attention system and many of our other cognitive faculties (e.g., memory), this will have widespread, positive effects of overall brain functioning.”

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