Is Your Phone Making You Forgetful? Learning and Memory in the Digital Age

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The ultraconnectivity of our modern society is causing a wholesale shift in the way we retain information in our heads. Where most of history has been a process of wielding tools to remember things for us (everything from scratches on papyrus to the PC), we’re entering an age where we don’t really have to remember anything. Technology connects us instantly to every piece of information we need to conduct our lives — from the signers of the Declaration of Independence to the date of your anniversary.

But a growing chorus is beginning to ask what this emerging technology is really doing to our onboard memories. In an age where we don’t have to remember anything, will we forget how?

The changes wrought on our memory by technology have already been documented. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Columbia, and Harvard have studied the effects of Google on human memory. According to their findings, published in Science, we’re better at remembering where to go to look up information than we are at remembering the information itself. Subjects in the study were also more likely to forget some factoid if they knew they could search for it later online.

So it seems our brain has a reflex. If we know we can rely on distributed cognition or transactive memory (the web, other members of the tribe, etc.), our instinct is to not bother remembering it at the time.

Motifs And Markers

It seems intuitive that you would keep Google on instant recall, the shorthand which leads to the more abstract, so you don’t have to fill your mind up with every discrete snippet of information.

This leads us to the next seemingly obvious conclusion. When we know we have constant access to all that bit-and-byte style stuff like phone numbers or your iTunes Store password, can we relegate it to the networks and hard drives of the world and leave our heads clearer for deeper creative thought? It certainly feels that way.

Or will we — in not bothering to remember stuff — lose the ability to remember altogether? The first thing to remember is that the brain is not a computer we can overload with files. The short-term memory certainly is — something you can easily prove to yourself by trying to remember any lengthy string of digits.

But Dr. Ian Robertson, psychologist and author of “The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure,” calls the permutations of connectivity in the long-term memory “almost infinite”: “The more you learn, the more you can learn … More things connect to other aspects of your memory and that makes you more skilled at storing and pulling them out.”

Of course, there’s a reason why memory works the way it does, and it’s completely different from saving a document on a computer or sending contact details to the cloud. Even the simplest memories are contextualized with emotion. It’s often the only reason we remember things at all. Your insurance company’s 1-800 number is going to mean something very different to you than the time you and your first crush stopped at the top of the Ferris wheel, for example.

So it might be that using the networks and search engines of the world as our “external hard drive” is just an extension of the pen and paper, the printing press, or any number of other recording technologies we’ve used since the rise of language.

We’re happy to relegate simple stuff to computers and cellphones, but few of us would volunteer to have the memory of our child’s birth or our first home run digitized and removed to make more space in our long-term memory — even if we could carry it around on a USB stick. We unconsciously keep the memories that mean something.

More Than Just Facts

But there’s another higher dimension to memory. Unlike computers, human minds aren’t just file repositories. Survival has always depended on two things: facts about ourselves and the environment, and the ability to make sense of those facts and weave them into everyday life. A computer can remember everything we tell it, but it can’t suddenly say “Hey, that guy you have in your contacts might be able to help you with the project.” The ability to pick out patterns is a uniquely organic talent.

Qualities and abilities like “knowing,” “creativity,” and “problem solving” might also work better when the information is inside somewhere. If we have to go to the outside world to complete the picture, who knows what resources we’re taking away from the “answer” and “idea” engines? Something else we’re extremely good at is discriminating on the fly about what matters. Everything you put into a computer — from your online banking access to a forgettable Instagram snap — is given equal weight.

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