- New research finds that digital devices may actually help aid our memory.
- The researchers used an important memory game to see if smartphone use was helping their memory.
- More research is needed to fully understand how we remember the world around us – with and without our devices on hand.
Smartphones, wearables and other digital devices are becoming ubiquitous memory aids, storing an endless amount of important—and not so important—information from phone numbers to birthdays to medication reminders.
But the widespread use of these devices has an impact led to fears That these devices may harm our internal memory.
New research suggests that this may not be the case, at least under the specific conditions used during the experiments in the study.
The results show that the external memory tools are working. Far from causing “digital dementia,” using an external memory device can improve our memory for information we never saved,” said the study author. Sam GilbertPh.D., Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, in A Release.
“But we need to be careful because we are backing up the most important information,” he added. “Otherwise, if the memory tool fails, we will be left with only less important information in our memory.”
In the study published on August 1 in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General158 volunteers played one of three important memory games on a touch screen digital tablet or computer.
During these games, participants were shown numbered circles on the screen and had to drag them in ascending order to the bottom, left or right side of the screen. New circles appeared after each circle was removed from the board.
Some circles are assigned a low or high value, as indicated by their brief appearance of blue or pink – before turning yellow like circles with no value. Participants earned points by dragging the circles with a low or high value to the side of the screen in the corresponding color.
Because the circles were moved in numerical order, the participants had to remember – using their own internal memory – the low or high value circles, even after the color changed to yellow.
During the first experiment, some participants were allowed to set on-screen reminders for low or high value circles. This is similar to using a smartphone or other digital device to remember information at a later time.
Participants, who could not use external reminders, tended to remember high-value circles better than low-value circles. A similar effect of the higher value of an item on memory was observed in previous search.
In the new study, when participants were allowed to use reminders, their accuracy increased — or how well they remembered circles with a low or high value.
However, they tended to use reminders for higher value circles. Despite this, its accuracy increased further for low-value circuits.
The researchers suggest that this may be because once people set a high-value circuit reminder, they no longer have to keep track of it using their internal memory. This frees up their memory stores to remember low-value circuits.
“We found that when people were allowed to use an external memory, the device helped them remember the information they had stored in it,” Gilbert said. “This was not surprising, but we also found that the device improved people’s memory of unsaved information as well.”
In a later experiment, the subjects lost the reminders they had placed midway through. As a result, they had to use their internal memory to move the circles to the correct side of the screen.
Most people who use digital devices are familiar with this often frustrating experience, such as when they lose their smartphone containing all important information and reminders or in an area with limited internet access.
With the loss of their reminders, people tended to remember low-value circles better than high-value circles.
The researchers suggest that this may be because people forget high-value information once it is replaced by reminders.
Another option, they said, is that people don’t even stick to high-value information in memory because they know they have an external device to track it – like typing someone’s phone number into a smartphone without actually hearing what it is saying.
This type of ‘inattention’ has been observed while using a digital device in other memory studies.
in one studyThe researchers asked a group of volunteers to take pictures of some artwork while looking at others without taking pictures.
In memory tests done 20 minutes to two days later, people remembered depicted artwork worse than art they simply looked at.
“We often take pictures of things we especially want to remember; Binghamton University graduate student Rebecca Lowery said in Release.
“It is possible that participants rely on the camera to remember the information that was depicted to them, which leads to poor memory for the photographed information,” she added.
These two studies – together with a previous study reconsidering From Smartphone and Memory Research – suggests that smartphones and other digital technologies can affect our memory, though not always for the worse.
More research is needed to fully understand how we remember the world around us – with and without our devices on hand.
However, since digital devices are not going anywhere soon, future research will need to account for people’s use of these memory aids in their professional and personal lives.
“One factor that influences memory in the real world, but usually not in the laboratory, is our tendency to use external tools and artifacts as part of the remembering process,” Gilbert and colleagues wrote in the paper.