We Outsource Our Minds Every Day, And Psychologists Want To Understand The Consequences

Our devices are doing more and more of the remembering for us.
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock via Getty Images

Even if you’re not old enough to remember the days when people memorized phone numbers, you probably still appreciate the virtually unlimited amount of information you can store on your phone, aka your second brain.

As we rely more and more on gadgets to carry our memories and information for us, psychologists are trying to find out whether our second brains are changing the way our first ones work.

“The growing interaction between people and technology has really brought interest in the subject to the forefront,” said Evan Risko, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “People want to understand how technology affects the way we think.”

Risko, together with Sam Gilbert of University College London, on Tuesday published a review of research in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences about what happens when we use resources outside of our brains ― from pen and paper to hand gestures to the internet ― to do some of the thinking for us and reduce our mental efforts.

That’s called cognitive offloading. And it’s a behavior almost as old as the human brain itself.

The Huffington Post

Most people will instinctively tilt their heads to read sideways text like in the image above, because trying to read the words without tilting your head would require greater mental effort. That’s an example of cognitive offloading. Other examples include jotting down items on a shopping list, setting a reminder on your phone, using a calculator or checking IMDB when the name of an actor is on the tip of your tongue. (Martin Starr! Of course!)

These days, so much of our behavior involves cognitive offloading that it raises questions about potential negative consequences. After all, could there really be such a thing as free brainpower?

“Cognitive offloading undoubtedly brings huge benefits, but also potential costs,” Gilbert said in a press release. “We are just beginning to understand these effects. For example, how can technology allow us to remain independent as we grow older, and what might the downsides be to relying on external devices?”

Will Future Humans Have Goldfish Memory?

A common concern about cognitive offloading is whether the growing list of contacts on your phone somehow reflects a shrinking capacity for memory in your head. Luckily, no study has yet found such an effect. The brain’s short-term memory system, capable of holding about seven items in mind at any given time, doesn’t seem to be affected by our smartphone use, Risko told The Huffington Post.

But even if our actual capacity for memory doesn’t change, we might become more adept ― or less ― at using our memory effectively. It depends on what resources are available to us and what kind of habits we form. In one study, for example, people were presented with a set of trivia statements to memorize and type into a computer. Half of the people were told that the information would be saved. The other half were told the file would be erased. Later on, when both groups of people were given memory tests about the trivia, the people who were told the document wouldn’t be saved performed better.

Sometimes, just having access to a trove of information online can cause us to think we’re smarter. In one set of experiments, people who had recently used Google to complete a quiz reported higher levels of cognitive self-esteem, suggesting that access to the internet can “lead individuals to blur the distinction between what they know and what the internet ‘knows,’” Risko and Gilbert wrote.

Other studies, however, have shown a contrary effect. Sometimes, people who have the option of using the internet appear less confident in their ability to answer quiz questions. This may be because they are comparing their own finite mental resources to the vastness of the internet, Risko said.

These findings are pieces in a bigger picture of how our memory works in tandem with external resources. To really know if they are signs of permanent changes in how we use our memory system or other cognitive skills, we would need to perform long-term studies, Risko said.

Will Distributed Brainpower Make Us Smarter?

Let’s take a jump to the future, when a driverless car is giving you a ride as a virtual assistant answers your emails and an AI system writes the financial report you’re supposed to file at the next meeting. What are you doing?

“When you offload, you free up some mental resources,” Risko said. “Now, if you devote that mental effort to some productive task there should be a net benefit.”

And we might need to learn some new skills to compensate for those that we are likely to lose. Studies have shown that learned skills, such as manually piloting a plane or even finding your way around in new places, tend to deteriorate as people rely more on external aids like automated devices and GPS wayfinding.

Similarly, storing information ― from phone numbers to photos ― on an external device means that we likely devote very little mental space to remembering it. So the question becomes, what we are using all that extra mental real estate for?

Perhaps our minds will become more like an address book for memories. Instead of remembering a piece of information itself, we’ll simply remember where to look to find that information ― which note on our phone, which page on the internet. In fact, research has shown that when we store data outside our brains, we have lower chances of recalling that information but better chances of remembering where it can be found.

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