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Are you forgetting SOMETHING?

You tell yourself you will read this later and you will almost certainly never remember to...

Written by Sunanda Mehta |
June 13, 2010 2:09:45 pm

You tell yourself you will read this later and you will almost certainly never remember to. From students to professionals and homemakers,distracted urban Indians are lurching from task to task,Twitter to Facebook,and struggling to cope with short-term memory loss
Namita Shibad is having a bad list day. Which is not to say that nine of the 10 things she has listed for the day are not happening. It is to say that she can’t find the darned list in the first place. “I remember I was making the list while talking to my cousin last night but I can’t remember where I put it,” she groans. Shibad is 49 years old and lives in Pune. A single mother,she is forever teetering on the tightrope as she manages her business,home and two children. This is not the first time that she has misplaced her list.

Rohan Kulkarni,an advertising professional in Delhi,takes no such risk. Every night,the 23-year-old mails the to-do list for the next day to himself. “And if there is something that I need to remember and am not near a computer or not able to put it down on my cell phone,I simply write it somewhere— on my hand,leg or my cuff. There is no way I am going to remember it otherwise,” he says.

Geeta Monga is 45,runs a corporate placement enterprise from her home in Pune and wouldn’t know how to get started every day without her lists. “I used to think it’s an age thing,this having to list down all the things to do and then forgetting despite all of that. Like last night,I listed my son’s dentist appointment for today and then forgot all about it. But then so did my son—and he’s just 18,” she says.

Welcome to the world of list junkies. Welcome also to a world that seems to be forgetting all the time. From forgetting to pick up those clothes from the dry cleaners to forgetting to lock the cupboard to forgetting your best friend’s birthday to forgetting to return that call from your aunt to forgetting the password to your bank account — the list is distressingly endless. It is also distressingly familiar.
Psychiatrist Dr Anand Alurkar,who is based in Pune,confirms that the number of patients coming to him to complain about failing memory has been steadily rising. “They span all age groups—from students to professionals to homemakers,” he says.

Shibad had become so panic-stricken some years ago about her “memory loss” that she even considered taking medication for it. “I dial the number of a person and while the phone at the other end is ringing,I forget who it was I had called. I forget to take my medicines,forget birthdays and most of all names and faces. Every time I get a friend request on Facebook from someone I don’t know,I still say yes because I am sure I must have met the person but have just forgotten!” she says.

So just what is happening? Are we becoming a society of absent-minded zombies? Are we all collectively losing it? Neither,says Dr NR Ichaporia,head of the department of neurology at Pune’s Jehangir Hospital. “We are not becoming a generation of forgetful people. We are simply becoming a generation that has too many things to do. And in that,we have started to lose our powers of concentration and focus,” he says.

Too many things to do and all at the same time. Multitasking is taking much of the blame. “The nature of multitasking means that each task gets your divided attention. Nothing is being done with hundred per cent focus any more. It’s a disorder,yes,but a disorder of concentration,” says Ichaporia.
According to Dr TR Raju,professor and head of neurophysiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS),Bangalore,the problem is that there is just too much information to handle. “If two decades ago,there were five things one needed to remember,now there are 25,” says Dr Raju.

A study conducted by the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging of Carnegie Mellon University and published in the journal NeuroImage in 2003 says short-term memory problems,changes in your ability to concentrate or gaps in your attentiveness are warning signs that you are multitasking too much.
Another study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2009) found that switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and slow down your progress. It reduces productivity by around 40 per cent.

We are forgetting things more because we are no more used to remembering things. “Twenty-five years ago,I used to know the telephone numbers of all the movie stars by heart. Now I don’t even remember my kids’ phone numbers. This is because I don’t need to,” says Shibad.
Surpiya Telang,a practicing psychiatrist in Pune,feels there may be something in that. “Earlier people didn’t have it so easy. They would calculate mentally,memorise numbers. Now you have the organisers,the Blackberries and the laptops. There are easy solutions everywhere that can lead to the brain sleeping off,” she says.

It’s not just anecdotal evidence. Research shows that the internet and how we use it is rewiring our brain. A study of online research habits,conducted by scholars from University College London in 2008,suggests that the way we read and think is changing drastically. It found that when we go online,we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading,hurried and distracted thinking. People who participated in the study typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book online before they would “bounce” out to another site.

Another study found that “infomania” — a term connected with addiction to email and texting — can lower your IQ drastically,with the constant flow of messages and information seriously hampering a person’s ability to focus on tasks.
Dr Alurkar says the problem is not just information overload but the inability to sift substance from junk. “There is too much of trivia cluttering our brain space and in that we tend to not give attention to what is important. I tell all my patients to prioritise and bunk the junk,” he says.

So what do you do? “First of all,stop fighting it so much and stop treating it as a disease. Also sometimes it’s important to forget,especially when it comes to unpleasant memories. At such times it’s a blessing that our frenzied lifestyles help us to move on rather than dwell on unfortunate incidents,” says Ichaporia.
Possible. Especially when you hear Shibad grumble. “Another problem is that I just can’t hold grudges against people. I just don’t remember.”

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