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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Some Are Losing It, Bit by Bit

Owners of digital devices are relying less on memory and more on megabytes to recall phone numbers and birthdays once burned on their brains.

July 17, 2001|DAVE WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paralegal Delene Waltrip once had one of those memories that never let loose of a phone number. Seared into the folds of her cerebral cortex were hundreds of 10-digit combinations for prosecutors, judges, clerks, family members, friends and takeout Chinese joints.

But the last time Waltrip needed a number on the fly, she drew a blank. She had to run out to her car and grab her cell phone, which automatically stores the numbers for incoming and outgoing calls.

"It drives me nuts," said Waltrip, who helps build cases against swindlers and con artists for the Santa Clara County district attorney's office. "I blanked out on my best friend's number the other day."

Like countless gadget-laden Americans, Waltrip's increased reliance on devices such as pocket computers, speed dial and electronic databases has led to a mild case of technological amnesia. More and more people don't remember mundane bits of information such as their parents' address or their spouse's work number.

Those data are stashed in the digital memory of their cell phones or their hand-held personal digital assistants. Most of the more than 100 million mobile phones in the United States come equipped with speed dialing, eliminating the need to punch digits. The 8 million PDAs keep track of birthdays, anniversaries and important meetings. And a whole slew of Web sites offer to remind users to do everything from buying milk to calling Mom.

Of course, human beings remain capable of remarkable feats of memory. Chess masters store the moves from thousands of past games in their head. Rabbinical scholars memorize vast passages from the Torah. Even average people carry around a staggering stash of information in their heads.

At the same time, though, more people report forgetting things they used to know. And they're blaming it on their gadgets.

So far, the tales of technology-induced memory loss are purely anecdotal. But academics are starting to examine the phenomenon--some even suggesting that it's the true melding of man and machine.

"We've always looked at memory as something carried in the head," said Kenneth Gergen, a Swarthmore College psychology professor and author of "The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life." "Now, we store our memory outside ourselves in a device."

Gergen frets that this growing dependence on bits of silicon rather than bits of the cerebrum has consequences beyond drawing a blank on Uncle Fred's address.

At some point, he said, "the self begins to collapse into the technology. People and machines are now almost inseparable."

People have been writing down phone numbers in paper organizers since shortly after telephones were invented. Before cheap computers, though, information scribbled in a little black book was constantly reviewed. Phone numbers were actually dialed; Christmas cards were addressed by hand. The florist got at least a verbal description of where to send flowers on Mother's Day.

Near-constant repetition of these mundane bits of data slowly etched them into long-term memory, the range of data stored more or less permanently in the cerebral cortex.

On hearing a phone number, short-term memory immediately absorbs the information. But it fades quickly. Dial or repeat the number enough times over a long enough period, though, and it sticks--sometimes forever. That's why most people remember their childhood phone number, for instance, but not the one they had two moves ago.

The whole process gets short-circuited by gadgetry. Because electronic devices exchange and store data seamlessly, information can be typed into a computer or PDA once and never thought about again. There's no chance to embed the information in the brain.

Michael Kovac, a senior business analyst with Homestore.com in Thousand Oaks, said he can date the last time people moved by whether he needs to check his electronic database to contact them. If it's before he started using storage gizmos, he can pull the information out of his own brain. If it's after, he needs help.

"I remember your old information but not your new stuff," he said.

Vanessa Benya, a Los Angeles mother of two, has the same problem. "Since my parents moved, I haven't had a clue what their phone number is. I can tell you what their number was when I was in seventh grade," she said. "As far as I know, their number is zero one. That's the speed dial number."

Benya and others said they feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in their lives, including expanded business lists, personal identification numbers for bank cards, computer passwords, Internet addresses and phone numbers for homes, businesses, faxes and cars.

"This enormous increase in things one might want to remember has come to dominate our lives," Gergen said.

Kovac, the Homestore.com analyst, argued that relying on portable devices might "free up memory in our brains that we can use for other things."

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