What's going on here? There are brain structures specific to facial recognition, so we are extra attuned to remember seeing faces of other people. The brain is tuned to look at other people and perhaps try to determine what they are thinking.
Studies have also found that when memories are similar, they're more likely to be confused, said Dr. Gary Small, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center on Aging and co-author of the book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind."
But we do have the advantage of forming memories based on five senses -- sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing, notes Paul Nussbaum, clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. These can also serve as reminders or provokers of past experiences.
Computers cannot at present reproduce the way your mother's salty chicken soup feels sliding down your sore throat, despite your vivid recollection of it from childhood. And that memory might come flooding back to your brain, not your phone, when you taste the soup again.
In other words, it's a lot harder for the human brain to store random strings of data that have no particular context or emotion. Computers can do this instantly, but we still need our brains to help us give our experiences meaning.
Is memory unchanging, or ever-changing?
Regardless of the handiness of our smartphones, we still rely on our memories to recall certain images and events that we did not record. We'd like to think that those memories are, as much as possible, "true."
But here's the thing: The way you encode memories depends on the state of your brain at that moment and the environmental context. That means neural network changes forever, and will never return to that exact state, Tranquillo and Hunter said. And when you recall something, that changes your brain, too! The very act of remembering uses brain processes, so you can never go back to the self that you were in the moment you're thinking about. Pretty trippy, right?
Technologies are emerging to help people document their lives digitally as never before. For instance, Microsoft developed a camera called SenseCam, which captures photos of your visual experience all day, every day. Gordon Bell, a Microsoft researcher, wrote a book called "Total Recall" in 2009 after recording every aspect of his life for a decade.
You might think that digital memory is more stable -- at its core, it's just a collection of 0s and 1s after all.
But, like the brain, technology is a constantly evolving, open system, subject to environmental influences. On a small scale, think about how files must be filtered to change formats. With compression, images and videos lose resolution and quality. But programs can alter photos in ways that enhance them, too. The computer is reassembling and reprocessing the files in each of these cases.
And, your computer may eventually break down, purging your files (which is why hard-drive backups are recommended).
Social media also gives new meaning to digital storage. Where you share a photo, how it gets tagged and what its caption says all create a memory around the image that wouldn't exist otherwise, Tranquillo said.
And your digital memory becomes influenced in even stranger ways now that there are social networking tools that update content without your direct intervention -- for instance, posting on Facebook or Twitter when you arrive at a location. With Facebook's Timeline feature, other people can contribute to your online life history by posting photos, videos and comments.
"This is the crowdsourced self," Tranquillo said. "As the viewer changes, so does the collective construction of 'you.'"
Aiding the aging brain
You may have, at one point or another, struggled with multitasking. That's because when you move from one task to another, your brain shuts down one neural circuit in order to move on to the next. That's inefficient, and studies have shown that it's harder for older adults to re-establish that initial circuit and return to the first activity.
But if you use the Internet in ways that make your life more efficient, it could theoretically reduce the multitasking that you do. You don't have to fumble through an address book frantically, or find your way out of an unfamiliar neighborhood unguided, while thinking about other things.
That's important as the number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease -- currently 5.5 million -- continues to climb. As people get older and their memory begins to decline, they are still able to access information through search, helping to compensate for their own memory deficits.
Small is working with computer scientists at UCLA on games that can help older people improve their ability to remember names and faces. Plenty of research is in the works to find brain-boosting pharmaceuticals, supplements and foods (most recently, berries), although nothing is a certain supplement.