Experts: Memory Loss Often a Focus Problem

ByABC News
June 23, 2003, 3:03 PM

July 14 -- How long will it take you to forget everything you read in this article?

That may depend on how much other information you're bombarded with today. And if you're like a lot of Americans it's probably an overwhelming amount.

There's e-mail, for example. The average worker sends and receives hundreds of messages every day. And there are passwords multiple computer log-ins and bank pin numbers. Then there are mental grocery lists, the day's tasks and the name of your friend's spouse to remember.

One problem with inundating the brain with lots of information is you're likely to forget some of the information. But experts point out the issue may not be with our memories.

The brain's ability to store knowledge is still considered to be vast, although how vast remains unclear. One French study estimated if we were fed 10 items of data every second for 100 years, it would only take up one-tenth of our brain's storage capacity.

Instead, they say, the most likely problem associated with information overload is loss of focus.

Zoning Out

"It's like a tree in a forest problem," says Gordon Logan, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "The more things we have to remember that are similar to other things, the harder it is to focus on a single item. The bigger the forest, the harder it is to remember a single tree."

He points out, as useful as it would be, our memories do not come equipped with a "record" button. Activating memory requires concentration and practice. If your life is busy, applying steady concentration becomes challenging.

In fact, chances are your attention has already begun to drift.

We all do it (some more than others). And Jonathan Schooler of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania has found people "zone out" more than they realize.

Schooler conducted studies in which he asked subjects to read from a textbook. Then at random intervals he and his colleagues interrupted the readers and asked whether they were still on task. He found that over 45 minute periods, people's minds wandered for about 15 percent to 20 percent of the time.