Could using smartphones improve memory skills?

Young black man looks at smartphone
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Using smartphones could improve memory skills by allowing individuals to free up memory for less important information

Many people believe that spending too much time on smartphones contributes to laziness and forgetfulness, but an experimental study by UCL researchers suggests that this is not the case.

The research, published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, demonstrated that digital devices can improve memory skills.

Individuals who use smartphones find them helpful in storing and remembering important information. In turn, this allows smartphone users to free up their memory to recall additional less important things.

Neuroscientists in the past have raised concerns over “digital dementia”

Neuroscientists in the past have raised concerns over “digital dementia” as a result of the overuse of technology. However, this study does not come to the same conclusion.

The findings show that using a digital device as external memory not only helps people to remember the information saved into the device, but it also helps them to remember unsaved information too.

How do smartphones improve memory?

Researchers developed a memory task to be played on a touchscreen digital tablet or computer which 158 volunteers aged between 18 and 71 participated in.

  • Volunteers were shown up to 12 numbered circles on the screen, and had to remember to drag some of these to the left and some to the right.
  • The number of circles that participants remembered to drag to the correct side determined their pay at the end of the experiment.
  • One side was designated ‘high value’, meaning that remembering to drag a circle to this side was worth 10 times as much money as remembering to drag a circle to the other ‘low value’ side.
  • Participants performed this task 16 times and had to use their own memory to remember on half of the trials and they were allowed to set reminders on the digital device for the other half.

The results showed that volunteers tended to use the digital devices to store the details of the high-value circles which improved their memory for those circles was improved by 18%.

Additionally, their memory for low-value circles was also improved by 27%, even in people who had never set any reminders for low-value circles.

The study strongly suggests that smartphones improve memory.

However, there was a potential cost to using reminders. Interestingly, when they were taken away, the participants remembered the low-value circles better than the high-value ones. This suggests that the volunteers had entrusted the high-value circles to their devices and then forgotten about them.

Smartphones do not cause ‘digital dementia’

Senior author, Dr Sam Gilbert, commented: “We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities.

“We found that when people were allowed to use an external memory, the device helped them to remember the information they had saved into it. This was hardly surprising, but we also found that the device improved people’s memory for unsaved information as well.

“This was because using the device shifted the way that people used their memory to store high-importance versus low-importance information. When people had to remember by themselves, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important information. But when they could use the device, they saved high-importance information into 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 never saved. But we need to be careful that we back up the most important information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we could be left with nothing but lower-importance information in our own memory.”



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