While smartphones can be useful for many things, there is limited evidence to suggest that they can directly improve memory skills. Some studies have found that using certain smartphone apps or tools, such as digital memory games or reminder apps, may help individuals improve their memory function in specific contexts. For example, regularly using a reminder app to keep track of important dates and deadlines may help someone better remember these events over time.
According to a new study led by UCL researchers, using digital devices such as smartphones may help improve memory skills rather than cause people to become lazy or forgetful. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that digital devices aid in the storage and recall of critical information. This, in turn, frees up their memory to recall less important information.
Neuroscientists have previously expressed concern that excessive use of technology could lead to cognitive decline and “digital dementia.” The findings, however, show that using a digital device as an external memory not only helps people remember the information saved into the device, but it also helps them remember unsaved information.
To demonstrate this, researchers developed a memory task to be played on a touchscreen digital tablet or computer. The test was undertaken by 158 volunteers aged between 18 and 71.
We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities. We discovered that when people were permitted to use an external memory device, the device assisted them in remembering the information they had saved into it.Dr Sam Gilbert
Participants were shown up to 12 numbered circles on the screen and were instructed to remember to drag some to the left and some to the right. At the end of the experiment, their pay was determined by the number of circles they remembered to drag to the correct side. One side was labeled ‘high value,’ which meant that remembering to drag a circle to that side was worth ten times as much as remembering to drag a circle to the other ‘low value’ side.
This task was completed 16 times by the participants. Half of the trials required them to remember using their own memory, while the other half allowed them to set reminders on the digital device. The results found that participants tended to use the digital devices to store the details of the high-value circles. And, when they did so, their memory for those circles was improved by 18%. Their memory for low-value circles was also improved by 27%, even in people who had never set any reminders for low-value circles.
However, results also showed a potential cost to using reminders. When they were taken away, the participants remembered the low-value circles better than the high-value ones, showing that they had entrusted the high-value circles to their devices and then forgotten about them.
Senior author, Dr Sam Gilbert (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) said: “We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities. We discovered that when people were permitted to use an external memory device, the device assisted them in remembering the information they had saved into it. This was unsurprising, but we also discovered that the device improved people’s memory for unsaved information”.
This was due to the device changing how people used their memory to store important versus unimportant information. When people had to remember things on their own, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important details. When they were able to use the device, they saved important information in the device and used their own memory for less important information.
“The results show that external memory tools are effective. Rather than causing “digital dementia,” using an external memory device can improve our memory for information we never saved. However, we must take care to back up the most critical information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we may be left with only trivial information in our own memory.”
The study was funded by an ESRC grant and an Independent Research Fund Denmark grant.
Overall, while smartphones may be a useful tool for certain memory-related tasks, it is important to balance their use with other strategies for improving memory, such as regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and getting enough sleep.