Many people believe that using smartphones and other electronic devices is ruining our memories and ability to think or simply use our brains. Research has shown a more nuanced picture with some negative effects but also some positive effects.
This piece of research, just published, sounds counter-intuitive. Most of us would assume that using smartphones and other electronic devices decreases our ability to memorise things — quite simply because we do not need to remember so many things. We can simply look it up in a few seconds or store it on the phone.
So, what did these researchers around Dawa Dupont at the University College London find?
To measure this the researchers developed a simple task-based experiment using circles on a screen which had to be dragged to the left or right of the screen. These circles had rewards assigned to them and some were designated high-reward circles and low reward circles.
Participants could save the information in their smartphones and set reminders. Interestingly saving the information and setting reminders improved memory. This improved memory for the saved information but also for unsaved information as well (i.e. low value circles they had not saved). This shows that using a smartphone to “off-load” memory, in contrast to what we think it is doing, is actually improving memory!
However, ironically lower value information was remembered better so it does make sense to save high-value information and have a back up of this because digital devices can improve memory — but seem to shift it to prioritise less important information!
Dawa Dupont, Qianmeng Zhu, Sam J. Gilbert.
Value-based routing of delayed intentions into brain-based versus external memory stores.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2022