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The trouble with relying on your smartphone more than your memory

If you ask me for the phone number of my childhood best friend, it comes tripping off my tongue. I haven’t called it in more than a decade, but it’s nestled in my memory between how to ride a bike and the lyrics to Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”.

Just don’t ask me to recite the phone numbers of the people I text every day. They’re stored on my phone, which means they’ve essentially been wiped from my memory bank. And I’m far from alone in this plight. Humans are increasingly suffering from “digital amnesia”; our ability to remember details of our day-to-day lives are declining as we grow more dependent on technology. The term "digital amnesia" was coined by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab in 2015 after researchers hired by the company surveyed 1,000 Americans aged 16 to 55. The researchers found that 91 percent admitted they use their smartphones and the internet as an extension of their brains, while 44 percent said their smartphones serve as their memories, as they store huge chunks of important memories on the devices. Of course, modern technology provides some great conveniences. Get a new work schedule? Snap a photo of it with your smartphone for later. Meet someone new and want to remember their digits? If they text you, their number is instantaneously available.

In fact, people have been outsourcing memory as long as man has been chiseling on stone or writing on papyrus, says Dr. Nathan Rose, assistant professor of cognition, brain, and behavior at the University of Notre Dame’s department of psychology. “Memory is highly capacity-limited,” Rose says. “There’s only so much information we can attend to at any given time. We’re constantly turning to outside devices to kind of supplement this limitation.” Physical memory banks can even be more reliable than our own; Googling to find out movie theater matinee times will always produce the same result, while our brains struggle to recall whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2:30. But there are costs to smartphone dependency. As much as 35 percent of folks in the Kaspersky Lab study said they would panic if their phones were lost—not because of replacement costs but because of the valuable information they contain. “If you have an emergency and don’t have your phone, that could be a problem,” Rose points out. How do you call someone to tell them something’s gone wrong if you’ve never even heard their phone number? But even if your phone’s safe and sound in your pocket, there are cognitive reasons to roll back your dependence on technology to do your remembering.

When Rose and colleagues at Notre Dame looked at how we retain information and our working memory, they provided study participants with two items—such as words or images of human faces—to keep in mind during the process. The participants were cued on one item to be tested, then cued to switch to the other. Their memories were able to make the leap. But once participants learned they no longer had to remember something, that they’d no longer be tested on it, that memory typically went away. That’s exactly what other researchers have found when it comes to digital amnesia: we may have the information, but if we know we don’t need to remember it, our brains let it go. Columbia and Harvard researchers found that when people “expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself.” The researchers termed this the “Google effect” because we know where to find the information—be it via a Google search or by swiping through our phone’s photos—but we can’t pull it out of our own brains. Technology is here—and it’s useful—so experts aren’t advising we go back to the age of rotary dial telephones and encyclopedias. But Rose says keeping the brain active is crucial, especially as we age. “Over the course of 20 years, if you’re not exercising those hippocampal circuits, neurons that don’t fire become useless,” he says. So what can you do?

  • Try supplementing the information in your phone with other means. Put that work schedule or reminder on your fridge, where you can read it and memorize it. Use the digital version as a back-up.

  • Ask people to recite their phone numbers, rather than texting them to you, and recite them back so you can practice committing them to memory.

  • Make a point to physically dial phone numbers rather than letting your phone do it for you. Create mnemonic devices to recall information, like incorporating the digits into a song or math problem.

  • Use Google as a last resort. If you’re trying to remember an actor’s name, leave your phone on the table and think about it for a while. It may come to you without a visit to IMDB.

  • When in doubt, leave it out … of your phone, that is. This may mean making mistakes, but there’s something to be learned from mistakes. After all, we tend to remember not to make them again.

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