Online time can hobble brain's important work

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: http://crosstalks.tv/talks/have-our-brains-reached--overload/

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.

More information: www.csc.kth.se/~erikf/Ion%20channels%20HighRes.pdf

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Human memory study adds to global debate

Feb 05, 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 ...

How chronic pain disrupts short term memory

Feb 07, 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 ...

Recommended for you

Study links enzyme to autistic behaviors

18 hours ago

Fragile X syndrome (FXS) is a genetic disorder that causes obsessive-compulsive and repetitive behaviors, and other behaviors on the autistic spectrum, as well as cognitive deficits. It is the most common ...

A new cause of mental disease?

Jul 23, 2014

Astrocytes, the cells that make the background of the brain and support neurons, might be behind mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, according to new research by a Portuguese team from ...

Molecular basis of age-related memory loss explained

Jul 22, 2014

From telephone numbers to foreign vocabulary, our brains hold a seemingly endless supply of information. However, as we are getting older, our ability to learn and remember new things declines. A team of ...

The neurochemistry of addiction

Jul 22, 2014

We've all heard the term "addictive personality," and many of us know individuals who are consistently more likely to take the extra drink or pill that puts them over the edge. But the specific balance of ...

User comments