Relying on Technology to Remember for Us Frees Up Cognitive Space

Our reliance on technology is hurting our memories — we load names, dates, and numbers into our smartphones that we cannot recall on our own. However, this offloading of information allows us to free up cognitive space to learn more.

As our minds move to the cloud, people fear that our reliance on storing our personal information and memories on external devices is making us weaker. Indeed, without our smartphones to help us remember birthdays and phones numbers, our internal memories become worse in these respects. However, BPS Research Digest writes on a study that argues there's a positive side to offloading this information: we make room to learn new things.


In a paper, published in Psychological Science, Benjamin Storm and Sean Stone have evidence indicating how humans can free up cognitive resources to learn more. The study involved 12 undergraduate students — quite a small group — in several experiments. The researchers asked them to study two documents on the computer with 10 words on them that they would be tested on later. Once they finished studying the first list, they saved the file and studied the second list.

The students were able to recall the words on the second list better than the first. It could be argued that the students' were influenced by the order of the lists — the second list was fresher in their minds. But the researchers attribute the participants' higher recall of the second list to the fact that students were able to offload (i.e., save) the first file to the computer, enhancing their ability to etch the second into their minds. They controlled for this scenario by making some of the saving processes unreliable on computers. They write:

“... saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file. Notably, this effect was not observed when the saving process was deemed unreliable or when the contents of the to-be-saved file were not substantial enough to interfere with memory for the new file."

The researchers conclude:

“These results suggest that saving provides a means to strategically offload memory onto the environment in order to reduce the extent to which currently unneeded to-be-remembered information interferes with the learning and remembering of other information.”

Read more at BPS Research Digest.

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