Contrary to popular belief, a new study has found that smartphones and other digital devices could help improve memory skills rather than causing people to become lazy or forgetful.
The findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that digital devices help people store and remember important information. This, in turn, frees up their memory to recall additional less important things.
“We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities,” said researcher Sam Gilbert from the University College London.
“We found that when people were allowed to use 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,” he added.
Neuroscientists have previously expressed concerns that the overuse of technology could result in the breakdown of cognitive abilities and cause “digital dementia”.
However, the findings show that using a digital device as external memory not only helps people to remember the information saved on the device, but it also helps them to remember unsaved information too.
For the study, 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.
Participants 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 they remembered dragging 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. 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 found that participants tended to use 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 per cent.
Their memory for low-value circles was also improved by 27 per cent, even in people who had never set any reminders for low-value circles.However, results also showed a potential cost of using reminders.
When they were taken away, the participants remembered the low-value circles better than the high-value ones, indicating that they had entrusted the high-value circles to their devices and then forgotten about them.