Using devices like smartphones can improve memory skills rather than cause people to be lazy, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The results showed that digital devices could help people remember important information, which in turn frees up space to recall less important stuff.
Up till now, researchers have assumed that the use of technology could result in poor cognitive skills and “digital dementia.” However, these new findings suggest the opposite: using digital devices not only helps people remember stored information but also helps them recall extra (unsaved) information.
In the study, a team from University College London, UK, developed a task for participants (aged 18 to 71) to play using a touchscreen computer. Participants were shown up to 12 circles on a screen and had to drag some to the left and some to the right. One side was named “high value,” and circles on this side were worth ten times more than circles dragged to the “low value” side. The number of correct answers determined their pay at the end of the study.
Participants repeated the game 16 times. In half of the games, they had to remember which side was high value using their own memory, and in the other half, they were allowed to set reminders on a digital device. Not surprisingly, participants used their digital devices to save information about the high-value sides. The team found that the memory about those games improved by 18%, but surprisingly the memory for low-value circles also improved by 27%.
However, the authors found a downside. When participants lost the reminders, participants remembered the low value better than the high value, showing that once they added that information to the digital device, they forgot about the information.
“We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities. We found that when people were allowed to use 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,” said Senior author Dr. Sam Gilbert (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). “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.”
According to the authors, using external memory tools can help patients. This doesn’t cause ‘digital dementia’ and can even improve memory for information never saved. But people need to ensure that they back up the most critical information. Otherwise, if the digital device fails, they could lose valuable information and be left with low-importance information.
Dupont, D., Zhu, Q., & Gilbert, S. J. (2022). Value-based routing of delayed intentions into brain-based versus external memory stores. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001261