Is Your Smartphone Actually Improving Your Memory?

Your smartphone easily eliminates your need for a Rolodex, an appointment calendar, and even a grocery list. Rather than remembering someone's phone number, we have that person call us to store the number. Our appointments are easily sent from an email to our smartphone calendar. We can use our phone apps to create grocery and to-do lists. These utilities can make our lives easier, but think about when you can't find your phone. Can you remember that grocery list?

Smartphones can weaken our ability to remember because when we store more information on our phones, we store less in our memory, according to a 2017 review in Frontiers in Psychology. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that storing important information on our phones can free up our minds to remember other things. The study's three experiments had participants play memory games on a touchscreen tablet. When participants were allowed to store aids to help them remember more valuable information for the game, they could remember both valuable and less valuable information. After these memory aids were taken away, the participants couldn't remember the more valuable information. However, the absence of high-value information memory allowed participants to remember low-value information more clearly.

How smartphones affect our ability to remember

In a press release about the study, senior author Dr. Sam Gilbert said that our digital devices can help us remember important information better when we have it conveniently stored on our phones. These cues act as memory aids and can also allow us to remember less important information more effectively. "This was because using the device shifted the way that people used their memory to store high-importance versus low-importance information," said Dr. Gilbert. "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."

Gilbert also recognized how important it was for us to have a backup system for remembering important information. A 2016 study in Computers in Human Behavior found that if we're somehow separated from our phones, this anxiety can affect our ability to remember things, even what's not stored on our phones. Perhaps an occasional digital detox might help our memory and relieve anxiety.