memory loss

July 9, 2001

I was talking with my mother recently and she told me about a fella she heard speak on the radio. According to this expert, we are losing our ability to remember things because of all the help we get from technology, like computers and personal digital assistants.

Studies show that the use of things like Palm Pilots bears a lot of the blame for our newly acquired inability to remember anything.

For those of you who don’t know, a Palm Pilot is a member of a group of high-tech gadgets known as PDAs, or personal digital assistants. (Actually, I had completely forgotten what PDA stood for, so I went on the Internet to look it up.) These are gizmos that fit in your hand. Many are about the size of a pack of cigarettes, but thinner.

Most PDAs are battery operated — which is okay, since it usually reminds you when to change the batteries.

Now, my PDA does a lot of assisting. It has a number of functions, but my favorite is that it can read my handwriting. There is no mini keyboard, just a mini screen and a stylus. I use the stylus to write on the screen and the PDA turns it into type — everything from letters and words to whole paragraphs. It has an address book, a memo pad, a to-do list, a calculator, a game and other stuff I haven’t even begun to figure out yet.

Because I can keep all of my notes, addresses and appointments in my PDA, who needs a memory? I can just carry all that information around with me. The PDA has taken the memory out of our heads and put it in our hands.

My daughter once asked me why she had to study anything at school that required remembering, since all she really had to learn was how to access information on the computer. Why remember when the American Revolution was when in thirty seconds, you can pull the dates off the Internet?

For a long time, I gave her the standard answer. I would say, “Well honey, the purpose is that you learn how to think.” She, of course, would give me that look that said “all dads are dense,” and ask why we need to learn how to think when the whole purpose of a computer is to think.

And maybe she’s right.

If we free our brains from all that stored stuff, will our brains get occupied with more useful tasks, such as inventing new things or solving the world’s problems?

People my age tend to dismiss this kind of question, but maybe, just maybe, there’s some truth to it.
I like to memorize favorite poems. I’ll admit, I do this mostly to impress people when I can’t remember anything worthwhile to talk about. Memorized poems also come in handy at things like weddings and funerals.

But kids would say, why bother? Just pull out the old Palm Pilot and in an instant, you can pull up hundreds of poems or anything else applicable to virtually any scenario that you could think of.

So, why bother with a memory?

Questions like this really are worth considering, because life keeps changing at an ever-faster rate.
This is serious stuff. Educators are debating if there really is any reason to have students memorize anything. When it’s all right there on the screen, connected to a vast, worldwide database, why have it in your head?

Information isn’t the only thing that can exist entirely online. Retail stores are also becoming something found more readily online. Take for example, Amazon.com. Amazon only exists on the Internet — they have no retail stores. It is a company that sells everything, from books to tools to electronics. I log onto the Internet through a telephone line and then ask my computer to take me to Amazon.com.

On the Amazon home page is a list of all the kinds of things you might want to buy or learn about. So, when I bought my Palm Pilot, I just clicked on electronics, and then on “PDAs and Handhelds.” In a lot of ways, shopping online is a lot more interesting and informative than shopping in the real world. Online, I can get a description of the item I’m interested in, editorial reviews, and even customer reviews, which I find to be the most helpful.

Even better, by law, there is no sales tax on items bought on the Internet — and since these online retailers don’t carry the overhead that a real-world retailer does, you really can get some good deals.

Amazon, like my PDA, can also act as my memory. Because Amazon’s computers remember all of my purchases and purchasing patterns, it can offer me things that I might be interested in. Amazon also offers a “wish list” function that can help me help others remember what to buy me for, say, my birthday.

In light of all this, is it possible that our brains are as outmoded as the typewriter? Personally, I was glad to see the typewriter go, because writing on a computer is so much easier. Still, I’m not sure that I’m ready for my brain to go into the same pile of junk where I dumped my old typewriter.

I don’t think human brains are going away any time soon. Our thought patterns are still complex, even compared to the most sophisticated computer. And if you’re like me, you enjoy the very process of thinking. Many thoughts just show up uninvited and then free associate into other thoughts. But it’s in this way that true originality can spring, where really good thoughts get their start.

So, nowadays because most of my planning consists of just jotting it down in my handheld and forgetting about it, I really do have more time to devote to contemplation.

The only challenge with that is to allow myself to contemplate and still be fully in the present. Because you can only truly be alive when you live in the present.

So I use my Palm Pilot, but I still meditate. The PDA lets me stay plugged into my life, while the meditation keeps me plugged into myself.

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