Online time can hobble brain's important work

September 23, 2013

While you are browsing online, you could be squandering memories – or losing important information.

Contrary to common , an idle brain is in fact doing important work – and in the age of constant information overload, it's a good idea to go offline on a regular basis, says a researcher from Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Erik Fransén, whose research focuses on short-term memory and ways to treat diseased , says that a brain exposed to a typical session of social media browsing can easily become hobbled by information overload. The result is that less information gets filed away in your memory.

The problem begins in a system of the brain commonly known as the , or what most people know as short-term memory. That's the system of the brain that we need when we communicate, Fransén says.

"Working memory enables us to filter out information and find what we need in the communication," he says. "It enables us to work online and store what we find online, but it's also a limited resource."

Models show why it has limits. At any given time, the working memory can carry up to three or four items, Fransén says. When we attempt to stuff more information in the working memory, our capacity for processing information begins to fail.

"When you are on Facebook, you are making it harder to keep the things that are 'online' in your brain that you need," he says. "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 .

"And when you try to store many things in your working memory, you get less good at processing information."

You're also robbing the brain of time it needs to do some necessary housekeeping. The brain is designed for both activity and , he says. "The brain is made to go into a less , which we might think is wasteful; but probably , and transferring information into memory takes place in this state. Theories of how memory works explain why these two different states are needed.

"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."

See Erik Fransén discuss information overload with other experts on Crosstalks TV:

Erik Fransén's ongoing work includes research on the link between disease and properties of nerve cells (ion channels). The project is a collaboration with Stockholm Brain Institute and a clinical consortium led by Martin Schmelz, from the Department of Anesthesiology, University of Heidelberg.

Explore further: Human memory study adds to global debate

More information:

Related Stories

Human memory study adds to global debate

February 5, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—An international study involving researchers from the University of Adelaide has made a major contribution to the ongoing scientific debate about how processes in the human brain support memory and recognition.

How chronic pain disrupts short term memory

February 7, 2013

A group of Portuguese researchers from IBMC and FMUP at the University of Porto has found the reason why patients with chronic pain often suffer from impaired short –term memory. The study, to be published in the Journal ...

Study creates new memories by directly changing the brain

September 10, 2013

By studying how memories are made, UC Irvine neurobiologists created new, specific memories by direct manipulation of the brain, which could prove key to understanding and potentially resolving learning and memory disorders.

Recommended for you

How the brain's wiring leads to cognitive control

October 6, 2015

How does the brain determine which direction to let its thoughts fly? Looking for the mechanisms behind cognitive control of thought, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California and United States ...

Surprise: Your visual cortex is making decisions

October 5, 2015

The part of the brain responsible for seeing is more powerful than previously believed. In fact, the visual cortex can essentially make decisions just like the brain's traditional "higher level" areas, finds a new study led ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.