The online world’s constant flux of information often results in a mental “overload” that can come to the detriment of short-term memory retention, researchers from the Royal Institute of Technology (RIT) in Stockholm, Sweden suggest. Eventually, this loss of brain inactivity may impair the cerebral processes whereby short-term memories are transposed into long-term memories.
Previous research in neuroscience indicates that our short-term memory, also known as “working memory,” can entertain up to four disparate stimuli simultaneously. Once this limit is exceeded, the efficiency and quality of mental work begins to decline.
“Working memory enables us to filter out information and find what we need in the communication,” study author Erik Fransén told reporters. “It enables us to work online and store what we find online, but it’s also a limited resource.”
However, even the most minimalist web designs and layouts tend to feature stimuli far in excess of our working memory’s boundaries. Facebook, YouTube, and other social media sites cram advertisement and content into a single “information field” that must be interpreted and navigated by the user. As we dismantle the onslaught of information into discrete pieces of data, it becomes exceedingly difficult to assign hierarchy and significance.
“When you are on Facebook, you are making it harder to keep the things that are ‘online’ in your brain that you need,” Fransén explained. “In fact, when you try to process sensory information like speech or video, you are going to need partly the same system of working memory, so you are reducing your own working memory capacity.
“And when you try to store many things in your working memory, you get less good at processing information,” he added.
In addition, overloading your working memory may result in a loss of crucial inactivity. Contrary to folkloric wisdom, our brains are designed to toggle between idleness and action, as relaxation facilitates cerebral “housekeeping.” For example, scientists believe that periods of rest are necessary to promote communications between short-term and long-term memory.
"When we max out our active states with technology equipment, just because we can, we remove from the brain part of the processing, and it can’t work,” Fransén said.
Sometimes, an idle brain is our own workshop.