Much digital ink has been spilled over the adverse effects our devices seem to be having on our minds and brains. The common wisdom is that by outsourcing the need to remember most pieces of information to our smartphones or other electronic aides, we’re not training our own memory — which, in the long term, will start to suffer. But that may not be the case, says a team of researchers led by members at the University College London (UCL).
Their work shows that, indeed, people tend to rely on digital devices to store and remember the most important bits of information. However, this may not be necessarily a bad thing as this frees up memory resources that we can devote to recalling less important things, which we might otherwise not be able to memorize.
“We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities,” says senior author Dr Sam Gilbert from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. “We found that when people were allowed to use an external memory, the device helped them to remember the information they had saved into it. This was hardly surprising, but we also found that the device improved people’s memory for unsaved information as well.”
In the past, researchers have voiced concerns that our daily overreliance on technology could give rise to widespread “digital dementia” — a significant breakdown in cognitive abilities caused mainly by lack of exercise in our mental functions. As many people might point out, the use of external memory aids has a very long tradition, starting as far back as the earliest forms of writing. That being said, digital devices are infinitely more capable and convenient in this role than a simple clay tablet or paper sheet, so the issue remained unsettled.
The current paper puts such concerns to rest. The use of digital memory aids, it explains, not only helps people better remember the information saved into the device, but also data that was never input, to begin with.
For the study, the team developed a memory task in the form of a simple video game, which was played by 158 volunteers aged 18 to 71 either on a touchscreen tablet or a computer.
The game presented the participants with 12 numbered circles. The numbers were only displayed for a limited amount of time, to give participants a chance to memorize them. Finally, they were asked to drag the circles to the left or right. At the end of the experiment, they would receive monetary payment depending on how they handled these circles, to incentivize them to apply their memory skills to their fullest.
Each side represented either ‘high value’ or ‘low value’. The numbers inside the circle would dictate the final payment the participant would receive, with the circles dragged into the high-value side being worth 10 times as much as one dragged into the low-value area. The experiment’s design motivated participants to remember which circles held the highest numbers and drag those to the high-value side.
Each participant performed the task 16 times, using only their own memory during half of these attempts, and being allowed the use of reminders inside the game for the other half.
Unsurprisingly, when the participants were allowed to use reminders, they tended to use these to store details about the high-value circles. Their recollection of these (as determined by how often they placed them on the high-value side) increased by 18%. Surprisingly, however, their memory of low-value circles improved by 27%, even in cases where they set no reminders for them.
“This was because using the device shifted the way that people used their memory to store high-importance versus low-importance information. When people had to remember by themselves, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important information. But when they could use the device, they saved high-importance information into the device and used their own memory for less important information instead,” Dr Gilbert explains.
A potential cost to using these reminders also became apparent during the testing. When the ability to use these reminders was taken away, participants remembered low-value circles with more accuracy than high-value ones. This, the team explains, reinforces the conclusion that participants were relying on memory aids for high-value circles and, subsequently, forgetting about their details themselves. They were, in essence, outsourcing the memory burden for these circles and relegating their mental resources to the other ones.
“The results show that external memory tools work,” Dr Gilbert adds. “Far from causing ‘digital dementia’, using an external memory device can even improve our memory for information that we never saved. But we need to be careful that we back up the most important information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we could be left with nothing but lower-importance information in our own memory.”
The paper “Value-based routing of delayed intentions into brain-based versus external memory stores” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.