Memories. Some are precious, some are practical, and then there are those we wish we could forget. But there’s room for them all: Weighing in at around three pounds and containing billions of neurons as well as miles and miles of blood vessels, the human brain has a memory capacity equal to about one million gigabytes, according to Scientific American.
Protecting that extraordinary storage system—and identifying the factors that can affect our memory and our brain health in general—is vital. For example, did you know that sitting down too much may negatively affect your brain function, or that brushing your teeth twice a day can help decrease your risk of cognitive decline? And speaking of oral hygiene, there’s one particular activity that can be bad for your brain if you do it while brushing your teeth. Read on to find out what it is.
READ THIS NEXT: Doing This at Night Can Boost Your Memory, New Study Says.
“Doing too many things at once creates disruptions to how well you can physically do things, pay attention and focus, adaptively respond, and remember—both in terms of recalling what you know and what you’re doing in the present moment,” advises Leilani Sáez, PhD, ACC, life coach and an assistant professor at the University of Oregon. In other words, if you’re trying to do two (or more) things at once, you’re probably not going to excel at either activity, even when one of those actions is something as familiar as brushing your teeth.
In particular, being preoccupied with your phone while tending to your oral hygiene (or performing any other bathroom routine) can have negative effects on your brain. “[Smartphones] can impact your working memory by pulling your attention away from whatever you’re doing,” says Sáez. “‘Working memory’ is an executive function we use to hold information in mind and do something else at the same time. Each of us has a limit to this capacity.”
When you’re simultaneously brushing your teeth (or clipping your nails or combing your hair) and scrolling on your smartphone, you may also be performing a third activity (metaphorically, anyway): patting yourself on the back for multitasking. But by doing more than one thing at a time, you’re actually making your life harder.
“Multitasking is a myth,” says Sáez. “To accomplish what appears like multitasking, we must switch our attention back and forth between multiple activities and thoughts. Information (held in mind or in the environment) can get overlooked, forgotten, or misplaced.” The result? “When their capacity to do this gets overwhelmed, most people feel ‘flooded’ or they forget aspects of what they were doing, and they generally do a crummy job,” Sáez warns.
Studies show that smartphones affect our wellness in various ways. According to Verywell Mind, not only can smartphone usage affect our brain health, sleep patterns, mental acuity, and social-emotional skills, but—shockingly—”cognitive capacity [is] significantly reduced whenever a smartphone is within reach, even when the phone is off.”
Sáez notes that smartphone use can keep our bodies “in a state of tension and hyper-vigilance, which is energy-draining.” She recommends changing your relationship to your phone, and recommends modifying its settings to limit notifications and prioritize the things you want to focus on.
“Don’t allow your phone to commandeer your brain functioning,” Sáez advises. “Recognize the burden placed on your mind when you try to do too much, as well as worsened performance when attention and memory are constantly diverted in ways that prevent focus.”
In addition to the potential harm multitasking on our phones can do to our memory in general, it may also impact our routines. And our hygiene has a far-reaching impact that goes way beyond a sparkling smile. The number of times we brush our teeth per day, in addition to other factors like how we store our toothbrush, can affect our risk of various ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. So it’s something we want to do right—and multitasking can definitely get in the way.
“Even though tooth brushing is likely a mastered activity, it involves multiple steps, so working memory is needed to mentally hold on to the goal while executing those different steps,” says Sáez. Although “mastered skills make fewer working memory demands, which leaves more room for thinking,” Sáez explains that if you’re brushing your teeth and also occupied with your smartphone, you may “blank out” or do a poor job. “Basically, when the brain gets ‘too full,’ something “falls out” of our mental awareness,” she says.
READ THIS NEXT: Never Do This After Brushing Your Teeth, Dentists Warn.