Have you got Goldfish Memory Syndrome?

A third of women can’t remember their own phone number - and it’s all down to information overload

By Tessa Cunningham

Memory of a goldfish: A recent study revealed that a third of women under 30 can't remember their own phone number or recall the birthdays of just three of their close relatives

Last week, I set off in the car on a brief shopping trip. But something terrible happened. Something so shaming, so toe-curlingly embarrassing that I almost don’t know where to begin.

I was looking for a dress for a friend’s summer wedding. After scouring the internet and leafing through magazines for ideas, I’d narrowed down choices. Now I just had two shops to try.

As usual the dog hopped in the back of the car, eager to come along on the ride. As usual I let him. Curled contentedly on his blanket, he was soon snoring quietly. In fact he was so quiet that I completely forgot he was there when I parked the car at the railway station, bought a ticket and got on the train.

It was only when I rang my daughter to ask her to walk the dog that I remembered he wasn’t at home. He was still in the car. I shot out of my seat like a greyhound out of a trap.

I’d love to say it was totally, completely and utterly out of character. But I’d be fibbing.
The truth is, my memory isn’t what it used to be. This may be an extreme example, but I have to admit I forget more things more of the time than I dare to try and remember.

It seems like yesterday that I used to be able to reel off telephone numbers, walk around the supermarket without a list and remember names of films and books.
Now I’m reduced to talking about ‘thingy with the beard and the ex wife with tattoos in that film about ice skating — or maybe rollerblading. You know the one I mean.’

And even though I now always take a list, I can’t remember the last time I came back from the supermarket with everything I needed. The trouble is I forget to put essentials like toilet rolls on the wretched list in the first place.

Health warning: Experts are convinced that modern life is
putting our brains under too much pressure

Or — even worse — I buy things that aren’t on the list because I can’t remember when I last bought them. When I get home, I realise it was last week. If anyone’s short of tins of tuna, they only have to ask.

Then there are the reading glasses left in the fridge and the pint of milk heaved upstairs to help with some bedtime reading. However, if you feel inclined to dismiss me as some batty old menopausal nutcase (I’m 52) think again. I’m not the only one. Memory loss is spreading like wildfire. And particularly among women.

We hold down top jobs, we sailed through exams at school and university, but put us on the spot and we’ll have trouble calling to mind what we had for lunch yesterday or the name of the last DVD we rented.

A recent study revealed that a third of women under 30 can’t remember their own phone number or recall the birthdays of just three of their close relatives. Meanwhile, a study of 150 people between 20 to 35 found that more than one in ten suffer severe memory problems.

‘Young people are losing the ability to remember new things, to pull out old data or to distinguish between important and unimportant information.
‘It’s a type of brain dysfunction,’ says Toshiyuki Sawaguchi, professor of neurobiology at Japan’s Hokkaido University, who led the study.

Experts are convinced that far from suddenly getting more stupid, we are all putting our brains under too much pressure. Quite simply, modern life is eating away our memories.

We rely too much on computer gadgets, organisers and automatic car navigation systems to do the remembering for us, with the result that memories never get stored on our internal ‘hard drive’.

We’re overloaded with data (from computer passwords to bank PINs and — perhaps worst of all — we are hell-bent on multi-tasking (sending emails while simultaneously making the dinner and looking after the children, for example). But our brains simply can’t cope with trying to do so many things at once.

Lance Workman, head of psychology at Bath Spa university, explains: ‘We are living in cognitive overload. Humans are designed to do one thing at a time. There’s a limit on how many things our brains can cope with simultaneously.’

Wired: The brain's short-term storage capacity is small holding about seven independent items at one time

Our memory relies on the function of a part of the brain called the hippocampus. It works with sensory processing regions in the neocortex of the brain to produce memories.

From the neocortex all the elements are rapidly distributed around the brain according to their content.

For example, visual information is processed by the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe at the rear of the brain. Auditory information is processed by the primary auditory cortex located in the temporal lobes, which lie on the side of the brain.
We process the information in fractions of a second. Then some data moves into short-term memory.

Finally, some of that information goes in long-term storage in various parts of the brain, much of it returning to the sensory cortex where we originally received it.
Only the data that catches our attention (like a police car behind us) or because we know we need it soon (a telephone number, for example) goes into short-term memory. We hold short-term information for maybe half a minute.

To consolidate a short-term memory and turn it into a long-term one, we need to make the memory flow around the circuit several times, strengthening the links. That means we need to make a conscious effort to store it in our brains by repeating the new information numerous times.

Fail to do this and the information gets lost.

The brain’s short-term storage capacity is small; it can hold about seven independent items at one time, such as ‘carry’ numbers when calculating arithmetic or items on a shopping list. Hence the problem with trying to do too many jobs at once.

My friend Susie, a solicitor, is a classic victim of multi-tasking. A few months ago she was on the phone to her nanny, checking her emails and all the while thinking of the next job on her to-do list — sorting out her desk drawer. In the midst of everything else, she started pouring herself a cup of coffee — and poured it straight into the drawer.

‘I couldn’t believe I could be so stupid,’ she sighs. ‘But sometimes my brain just seems to scream: “Enough.” From the second I get up in the morning I’m multi tasking. I’m getting dressed, shouting at the kids to get out of bed and planning the day’s first meeting — all at the same time.

‘I couldn’t possibly get through all that I have to do in a day any other way. But I sometimes worry I’m losing my mind. I forget things and make mistakes.’
Scientists have discovered that women who multi-task the most actually have the worst memory problems. ‘Everything distracts them,’ says Professor Eyal Ophir, who led the research at America’s Stanford University in August, 2009.

From the second I get up in the morning I’m multi tasking. I’m getting dressed, shouting at the kids to get out of bed and planning the day’s first meeting

‘They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing. High multi-taskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.’

Researchers are now studying whether chronic multi-taskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once.

‘When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,’ says Professor Anthony Wagner, who helped lead the study on 100 students. ‘That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by irrelevant information.’

On top of trying to multi-task, we are also being bombarded with a constant avalanche of new information to digest and memorise. The internet, mobile phones, TVs and other electronic gadgets spew out new stuff relentlessly.

Scientists reckon that we are expecting our brains to cope with as much information in a single day as our great-grandmothers received in an entire week 100 years ago. Added to that, many of us don’t get enough sleep. And sleep is crucial to helping us digest and solidify the information we’ve acquired during the day.

Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel have discovered that, after learning a new task in the morning, the group that then had a 90-minute snooze were able to recall the task significantly better by the end of the day than those who didn’t take a nap.

But aside from trying to grab a little more shut-eye, what exactly can you do to try to improve your memory? Exercising both body and brain is one solution. Anything physical, such as a daily jog or swim, encourages the body to create a chemical that boosts memory, while doing crosswords or sudoku puzzles keep the brain active, too.

Repetition also helps you to retain things in your long-term memory, so if there’s something you want to commit to memory, try repeating it to yourself every few days until it’s second nature.

You can also use your visual memory to try to remember things. It’s a trick used by the Ancient Greeks and how Cicero managed to reel off extraordinarily complicated speeches off the cuff.

America’s National Memory champion, Joshua Foer, says ‘If you’re trying to remember a microwave, for example, maybe think about a microwave frying a cat. It just has to be colourful — and memorable.’

And finally, just stop trying to do it all. If you’re checking emails, don’t try to answer the phone at the same time. If you’re reading, switch the TV off. Sometimes it’s the simplest solutions that are the most effective — if, of course, you can remember them