The Extended Mind: The Link Between Technology and Memory

Millenials are often bemoaned as a generation tethered to their smartphones, perfecting digital communication at the expense of human interaction, but those same technological advances have allowed for the creation of online communities, enormous social justice campaigns, and international collaborations. The modern malaise of technology is usually framed in terms of how it affects us as social beings, or how it allows work to bleed into our personal lives. But in both work and our social lives, technology often serves as a memory aid - our smartphones and laptops are a complex network of notes, reminders, and calendars. How does technology affect our memory, and what implications does our increasing reliance on technology have for the way we think about the mind?

In 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed the "Extended Mind" hypothesis - the idea that the mind does not have to be contained within the brain or physical body, but can extend to elements of the environment. Their original thought experiment involved a man storing information in a notebook, but an iPhone seems a more fitting modern example - from apps like Apple's Notes and Google's Keep to Evernote and countless others, our smartphones are a convenient repository for information we want to store away for later rather than taxing our limited working memory.

To illustrate how technology can be not just an aid for memory but an extension of the mind, we can look to amnesics. A number of studies have reported on the beneficial uses of smartphones in improving the memory functioning of amnesics, with other, more anecdotal evidence showing that apps that most of us use to jot down notes to ourselves or organize scattered ideas, like Evernote, can be used as a sort of external memory system to compensate for the inability of anterograde amnesics to form new long-term memories. Instead of organic memories, their experiences are stored in an online database that they can then access and manipulate.

The idea of an extended mind isn't limited to amnesics - recent psychological research has shown that the vast availability of online information may be changing the way we encode and store memories. A series of studies by Betsy Sparrow and colleagues demonstrated that the Internet is a salient form of external memory - when people expected to have future access to information (via online search engines), they had lower rates of recall for the information itself, and enhanced recall for where to access it. Instead of memorizing large amounts of information, we can simply remember how to find that information on our computers. Another study, by Linda Henkel, showed that taking photographs of museum pieces impaired memory for those pieces - the act of photographing an object seems to serve as a "replacement" for organic memory, supporting the Extended Mind hypothesis in that an external tool is being used not just to aid memory but to take the place of an organic memory.

Henkel's research echoes the sentiments of Susan Sontag, who wrote, in On Photography, of taking photographs as a way of "refuting" experience - we "stop, take a photograph, and move on". Not only do photographs and other forms of externally storing memories have implications for the strength of our memories, they also affect the very nature of our experiences, and the nature of our interactions with the world around us. It seems that the more connected we are to our technological aids, the more disconnected we become from the rest of our physical environment.

But it's more complicated than that - a second experiment done by Henkel and colleagues showed that when participants were instructed to take photographs of specific parts of an object, rather than of the object as a whole, their memory for those objects was actually improved - while simply pointing and shooting can be a way to file something away for later and move on without truly experiencing it, the additional cognitive processing involved in focusing and framing a shot to capture specific details can aid memory. And storing information externally - whether that be remembering the name of a website that has the information you need instead of remembering the information itself, setting up a schedule with reminders on your phone instead of trying to rely on a mental calendar, or taking a photo of a sculpture you want to remember - frees up valuable cognitive resources for other tasks. By outsourcing these lower-level tasks, we have more time and energy to focus on creativity, complex problem-solving, and other higher-order functions.

The integration between technology and the organic mind will only grow stronger. As technology becomes more and more prevalent in our lives, the idea of the extended mind seems increasingly plausible. While the growing role of technology can be disconcerting at times, mindfulness of how we use our smartphones and cameras can allow us to enrich our memory without detracting from our experience of the present.