Using digital devices could actually benefit you instead of making you lazy.
According to a recent study by researchers at University College London (UCL), using digital devices like smartphones can actually improve people’s memory abilities rather than making them lazy or forgetful.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, demonstrated that using a digital device can make it easier to store and recall very important information. Their memory is thus freed up to remember other less important things.
Neuroscientists have previously raised concerns that excessive use of technology could lead to cognitive decline and “digital dementia”.
The new study, however, demonstrates that using a digital device as an external memory helps individuals to remember knowledge not only stored in the device, but also to remember information not stored.
The researchers created a memory game that can be played on a touch pad or computer to show it off. 158 people, aged 18 to 71, took part in the experiment.
Participants saw up to 12 numbered circles on the screen and had to remember to swipe some of them to the left and others to the right. The number of circles they remembered to slide to the correct side determined their pay at the end of the experiment. One side was designated “high value”, which means remembering to slide a circle on that side was worth 10 times more money than remembering to slide a circle on the other “low value” side .
Participants performed this task 16 times. They had to use their own memory to remember half of the trials and they were allowed to set reminders on the digital device for the other half.
The results revealed that participants tended to use digital devices to store details of high-value circles. And, when they did, their memory for those circles improved by 18%. Their memory for low-value circles was also improved by 27%, even among people who had never set reminders for low-value circles.
However, the results also showed a potential cost associated with the use of reminders. When taken away, participants remembered the low-value circles better than the high-value ones, showing that they had given the high-value circles to their devices and then forgotten about them.
Lead author Dr Sam Gilbert (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) said: ‘We wanted to explore how the storage of information in a digital device might influence memory abilities.
“We found that when people were allowed to use external memory, the device helped them remember the information they had saved on it. This was hardly surprising, but we also found that the device improved also people’s memory for unsaved information.
“Indeed, the use of the device changed the way people used their memory to store information of high importance versus information of low importance. When people had to remember on their own, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important information. But when they were able to use the device, they stored important information in the device and used their own memory for less important information instead.
“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 have never recorded. But we must be careful to safeguard the most important information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we might end up with nothing but lesser information in our own memory.
Reference: “Value-based routing of delay intentions into brain-based versus external memory stores” by Dawa Dupont, Qianmeng Zhu and Sam J. Gilbert, August 1, 2022, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Independent Research Fund of Denmark.
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