“Once you stop using your memory it will get worse, which makes you use your devices even more. It’s very convenient, but convenience has a price. It’s good for you to do certain things in your head.” Oliver Hardt
Are phones changing how our memory works?
Smartphones have helped us outsource part of our memory to an external device. But does this free up our cognitive capacity? Or cause us to stop forming new memories? We explore the pros and cons of using technology as a memory bank.
In our fast-paced digital world, the way we interact with information has radically transformed. No more writing letters and having only a handful of photos in albums on the shelf. Technology has made information more accessible and us arguably more productive, but has it made our memory more or less reliable? Our memory has adapted to modern life and the rise of technology has affected the way we remember. So what are the pros and cons of storing your life on a cloud?
There are clear benefits that technology has our memory and productivity.
We don't need to memorise phone numbers or directions anymore. The internet acts as an external memory bank where we can "offload" information. This phenomenon, known as the 'Google Effect'. Knowing information is available online may improve cognitive function by making room for other tasks. A study by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia University supports this idea, stating that people are more likely to remember where to find information rather than the information itself. It also means we can easily find information that previously would have been quite hard to store - such as a mobile numbers and where you parked the car.
Our phone allow us to take a large volume of photos to store in our pockets. We can go back through our camera roll and remember things with a visual cue. One study suggests that taking photos can improve visual memory - we remember more visual elements and have better recall for objects they photographed compared to those they only observed. But the benefits of this on our memory is a little conflicting.
Apps like Duolingo and Lumosity, designed to make learning enjoyable, could potentially improve long-term memory retention. Gamification of learning not only makes the process engaging but also incorporates scientifically backed methods for memory enhancement.
When we use our memory less, it’s know to deteriorate. So it may be true that the more we use our devices as to externally offload information, the less we actively remember.
Having easy access to information could contribute to lower memory performance, also known as 'Digital Amnesia'. According to a Kaspersky Lab study, 91% of people said they use the internet as an online extension of their brain, but 44% admit that their smartphone serves as their memory. We use our phones for tasks that previously would have required skills and memory - such as map reading. It could mean that areas of your brain aren’t being activated and used, contributing to a decrease in cognitive performance.
While photography might enhance visual memory, the act of taking photos can itself be a distraction, diminishing the quality of memories formed and even the perception of the experience. By taking photos, we’re distracted from the actual experience by getting a good shot so may not remember other senses like sound or smell. One study found that participants that didn’t use social media to capture events consistently remembered their experience more precisely than participants who did. We’re also more likely to remember the experience from a third person perspective.
Multitasking isn’t great for your productivity. Yet due to the nature of technology, it is frequently encouraged by smartphone use which may undermine memory and cognitive control. We are constantly interrupted by our devices and research from Stanford University backs this by highlighting how multitasking impairs cognitive functions and impacts memory adversely.
So the modern digital landscape presents a paradox when it comes to memory: it both aids and hampers our ability to remember. To strike the balance right, try to be present in all situations. It tends to be the days that you didn’t get any photos that are the ones that stick in your mind the most prominently.
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