Brain Sciences


How the use of digital devices can aid memory

4 June 2020

Outsourcing memories to a digital device could help rather than harm our memory processes, a new ICN study suggests.

looking into distance

In a recent study, published in Memory, researchers from UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience explored the issue of memory and how it is affected by technology.

Lead author Chiara Scarampi said: “In today’s technological society we increasingly offload our memories into external devices, for example relying on smartphone alerts to remind us of upcoming appointments instead of using our memory. As a result, people worry that overuse of this sort of technology might be harming our memory ability.”

Given that there is very little hard evidence about whether technology harms or helps our ability to remember, the researchers wanted to explore whether there is any truth to the fear that overuse of digital aids can erode our memory.  

In the study, participants performed a brief task where they had to remember information either using their memory or with the help of external reminders on a computer.  They then tested their memory afterwards and found no evidence to suggest that using reminders harmed a participants’ subsequent memory ability. However, what they did find was a clear effect on the likelihood of participants reaching for such memory aids again – discovering that just a single application of a memory technology could make people more likely to rely on such memory aids again, which can improve their ability to retain information.

The study indicated that people’s fears about the use of technology may therefore be misplaced. While there is little evidence that using memory technology will significantly harm our ability to remember, there is however a clear risk that if people avoid technology they will fail to make use of these strategies which are often effective and helpful.

Senior author, Dr Sam Gilbert, said: “Some people may avoid memory technology because of the idea of ‘use it or lose it’ - that is, you have to keep your mind active to stay mentally healthy. There’s no doubt that keeping your mind active is good for you, but memory technology can actually help rather than hinder this.”

He said overall their research suggests the fear of an overuse of technology harming our ability to remember could be just as bad as the possibility that if we use technology too little we might not benefit from its capabilities.  

“Fears espoused in headlines warning about ‘digital dependence’, ‘digital amnesia’ and even ‘digital dementia’ need to be balanced against the very real problems that can occur when we fail to make use of convenient and reliable memory tools,” said Dr Gilbert.

“For instance if you choose to write down your shopping list or store it in a digital device, this can actually free your mind to think about other things which are potentially more valuable,” he added.

The researchers will conduct further investigations as to whether there are differences between the way younger and older people use reminders, as well as to better understand how people make decisions about the cost/benefit of memory technology, with the aim of designing interventions that promote optimal use of cognitive tools.