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Drew Turney
Technology Journalist

Drew Turney writes about technology, science, film, books, pop culture and the crossroads between any or all of them

Drew Turney
Technology Journalist

Drew Turney writes about technology, science, film, books, pop culture and the crossroads between any or all of them

As we offload more of the storage of information to technology, might we humans be losing the art of remembering? Find out about the repercussions of ‘outsourced memory’ and learn what you can do to keep your brain active.

We all know how lost we'd be for phone numbers and email addresses if we became separated from our phone. Those from another generation recall that 20 years ago a dozen phone numbers would have been committed to memory, but today the busier we get and the more we have to remember, the more we rely on machinery.

The technosphere is our new collective memory and for the first time in history, it seems virtually no fact is beyond our reach. Might this cache of information be altering us more than we think?

Using tools so we don't have to remember things ourselves is not new but now – thanks to technology – we can connect instantly to every piece of information the human race seemingly possesses. We're entering a new era of 'outsourced memory', with some experts asking whether it might cause us to lose the art of remembering altogether.

illustration of brain with technology devices around it

If my memory computer serves me correctly

The effects of the internet on our memories were documented in 2013 when Columbia University researchers found we're better at remembering where to go to look for information than we are at remembering the information itself. Subjects were also more likely to forget something when they knew they had access to the internet to find it later.

At first glance that seems like a great thing. If we can empty our heads of all the fiddly details like phone numbers or addresses, surely we'd have more mental resources to devote to abstract, creative thought. It certainly feels that way when the torrents of information that characterise our age leaves us mentally exhausted.

The problem with that assumption is that long-term retention in the brain isn't like computer memory. We continue to learn new things throughout our lives without running out of space.

There's also a reason memory works the way it does, and that's because we tend to remember things with emotional context. You'll recall your first kiss a lot differently than you will the address of your mechanic.

Emotional connections

So maybe the networks and search engines of the world are our external mental hard drives for simple, discrete stuff that serve merely as markers to larger mental concepts. Your spouse's mobile number is pretty meaningless by itself, it's the utility of the number that means something.

Even so, there might be another danger in offloading stuff we don't consider as important. Minds are significantly more than just file repositories like computers or the internet are. In primordial times, human survival depended on retaining facts about the world, but also the ability to make sense of and weave them into everyday existence.

A computer will remember everything you tell it perfectly, but it won't connect the dots. Suddenly realising a guy you once had an email from might be a good contact for the project you're working on now is a uniquely human trait.

Qualities like 'knowing', 'creativity' and 'problem-solving' might also work better when the information is already inside us somewhere. Who knows what information-processing resources we're taking away from the creative process by shifting concentration to look something up online?

Verdict

There's little debate about information overload – the torrent of stuff we're expected to remember, retain and process is already too much. And unlike silicon-based memory, our biological systems need rest, relaxation and time off so we are able to work better.

Whether computers and search engines are causing us to lose the art of memory or not, you have the best chance to make yours work for you if you keep that in mind.

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