When you need to remember a phone number, a shopping list or a set of instructions, you rely on what psychologists and neuroscientists refer to as working memory. It's the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind, over brief intervals. It's for things that are important to you in the present moment, but not 20 years from now. Researchers believe working memory is central to the functioning of the mind. It correlates with many more general abilities and outcomes – things like intelligence and scholastic attainment – and is linked to basic sensory processes.
No doubt, many of you will insist you remember some or all of these events. But what if I were to tell you that your cherished memories aren't as reliable as you think? Or that I can get you to ardently believe things that have never even happened to you? But as part of my work as a psychological researcher at London South Bank University -- where I specialise in the unreliability of human memories -- I've done just this many times. After a few sessions with me, I could get you to believe things that are complete fiction.
Everything you do changes your brain. Right now, wherever you are, looking at these words is shaping and modifying the connections between neurons inside your head. It seems like a scary thought, but this process – known as neuroplasticity – is fundamental to our ability to learn new skills, keep hold of old ones, and form new memories. Imagine, then, if we could take control of that process. If we could target specific types of skills and cognitive processes, then we could teach our brains to be better at, well, anything.
The habit of multitasking could lower your score on an IQ test and cause other cognitive deficits. I even take my phone with me to fire off a few texts when I go to the restroom. Or I'll scroll through my email when I leave the office for lunch. My eyes are often glued to my phone from the moment I wake up, but I often reach the end of my days wondering what I've accomplished. My productivity mystery was solved after reading "The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World," by University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley.