Phones, smartwatches, other digital devices make you smarter, study suggests

According to a new study led by UCL researchers, using smartphones, smart watches and other digital devices can improve a person’s memory skills. The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that digital devices help people store and remember very important information. This, in turn, frees up their memory to remember other, less important things.

Neuroscientists have previously expressed concerns that the overuse of technology could lead to the breakdown of cognitive skills and cause “digital dementia”.

However, the findings show that using a digital device as an external memory helps people not only remember the information stored on the device, but also remember unsaved information.

To demonstrate this, researchers developed a memory task to play on a digital tablet or computer with a touchscreen. The test was conducted by 158 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 71.

The participants were shown up to 12 numbered circles on the screen and had to remember to drag some to the left and some to the right. The number of circles they remembered to drag to the correct side determined their reward at the end of the experiment. One side was labeled ‘high value’, meaning remembering to drag a circle to this side was worth 10 times more money than remembering dragging a circle to the other with a ‘low value’.

The participants performed this task 16 times. In half of the trials, they had to use their own memory to remember, and for the other half, they were allowed to set reminders on the digital device.

The results showed that participants tended to use the digital devices to store the details of the high-quality circles. And when they did, their memory for those circles improved by 18 percent. Their memory for low-value circles was also improved by 27 percent, even in people who had never set reminders for low-value circles.

However, the results also showed potential costs for using memories. When taken away, the participants remembered the low-value circles better than the high-value circles, showing that they entrusted the high-value circles to their devices and then forgot 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 affect memory capacities.

“We found that when people were allowed to use an external memory, the device helped them remember the information they had stored in it. This was not surprising, but we also found that the device improved people’s memory for unstored information.

This was because using the device changed the way people used their memory to store important versus less important information. When people had to remember for themselves, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important information. But when they were able to use the device, they stored important information on the device and instead used their own memory for less important information.

The results show that external memory tools work. Rather than cause ‘digital dementia’, using an external memory device can actually improve our memory for information we never stored. But we have to be careful to back up the most important information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we can only hold less important information in our own memory.”

The research was supported by an ESRC grant and a grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

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