LONDON — Using smartphones may actually help to improve a person’s memory skills, instead of making them lazy or forgetful, a new study finds. Researchers from University College London say digital devices can store important information, which frees up our brains to remember other things.
The team adds that using a phone as an “external memory” not only helps people remember what’s stored in the phone, but also helps them remember unsaved information as well. Until now, neuroscientists have been worried that using too much technology could reduce brain function and even lead to a form of “digital dementia.”
“We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Sam Gilbert in a media release.
“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.”
“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.”
Digital reminders can sharpen memory of important information
For the study, the team developed a memory task, played on a touchscreen digital tablet or computer. Nearly 160 people between 18 and 71 participated in the experiment.
Participants were shown up to 12 numbered circles on the screen and had to remember to drag some of these to the left and some to the right. The number of circles that they remembered to drag to the correct side determined their reward at the end of the experiment.
Researchers also designed one side as “high value,” meaning that remembering to drag a circle to this side was worth 10 times as much money as remembering to drag a circle to the other “low value” side.
Each person performed this task 16 times. They had to use their own memory on half of the trials, and they were allowed to set reminders on the device for the other half. Results revealed that the participants tended to use the digital devices to store the details of the high-value circles.
When they did so, their memory regarding those circles improved by 18 percent. Their memory connected to the low-value circles also improved by 27 percent, even among people who never set any reminders for low-value circles.
Are we only remembering useless information?
However, the results also unearthed a potential cost to using digital reminders. When the study authors took these reminders away, the participants displayed better memory skills when it came to remembering the low-value circles instead of the high-value ones. Researchers believe this shows that the participants entrusted too much knowledge about the high-value circles to their devices and forgot about them more easily.
“The results show that external memory tools work. 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,” Dr. Gilbert concludes.
The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.