Sam Gilbert Ph.D.

The Extended Mind

Technology Is Changing Memory. How Can We Use It Optimally?

Self-knowledge is key to making the best use of technology.

Posted Oct 31, 2019

We don’t just store memories in our heads, we also store them in the world around us. Human beings have done this for many thousands of years [1]. Whereas once we used technologies such as the stone tablet or quill pen, we are now more likely to use devices like post-it notes, smartphones and the internet to store information that we might otherwise forget. How can we use these memory tools optimally?

 Tumisu/Pixabay
An example of memory technology.
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

Historically, people’s main concern has been that over-use of technology might make us too reliant on it and harm our ability to remember things on our own. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates warned against the technology of his day—writing things down—because he thought that it would cause “forgetfulness." The same type of worry can be heard in more recent warnings that over-reliance on technology might cause “digital amnesia.”

But these concerns overlook an alternative problem that can be just as harmful. Anyone who carries a smartphone with them has a very powerful external memory device at their disposal, which can easily store text, sounds, and pictures. These devices can also be programmed to deliver time- or location-based reminders for future intentions. If you’ve ever been disappointed that you can’t remember something which you could have stored externally, or forgotten to do something you intended although you could have set a reminder, this is a failure caused by the under-use of technology.

Every day, we make constant decisions about whether to store information by simply trying to remember it or by using a memory tool such as a written note or smartphone alert. If you have to remember an appointment in one month’s time, you would probably write down the date and time or set a reminder on a digital device. But if you have to remember to make a phone call in 10 minutes, you might just try to remember this without setting any reminder. Similarly, you might try to remember a shopping list of three items on your own, but make a written list for 10 items.

Recent research has begun to investigate exactly how people make these decisions between using their own memory or external reminders [2,3]. The key finding from this research is that individuals decide to use memory tools when they believe that they would otherwise forget [4]. In other words, people decide whether to use memory tools based on how good they think their memory is, which does not always match how good it actually is.

Some people are over-confident in their memory abilities. These people do not think they need reminders when actually they should be using them. Others are under-confident and use reminders even when they would have remembered anyway. In our research, we have found that people differ in how confident they are about their memory, and these differences lead to stable biases in whether they prefer to use their own memory or an external tool [5].

The key, then, to making optimal decisions about memory technology is insight or self-knowledge about how good our memory abilities are. The better we understand the strengths and limitations of our own memory abilities, the better we will be able to make accurate decisions about when we need help from external technology. This can help us to avoid biases in our use of memory tools.

Our ability to think about our own minds and mental abilities is called “metacognition.” If we improve our metacognition, then we can improve our use of memory technology. Luckily, evidence shows that metacognition can be improved with training [6].

What’s important is to pay close attention to how confident you feel in your memory abilities and test how well they match reality. The more realistic we can be about our memory abilities, the more optimally we can use the memory technologies that are pervasive today. 

References

1. Risko, E. F., & Gilbert, S. J. (2016). Cognitive Offloading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(9), 676–688. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2016.07.002

2. Gilbert, S. J. (2015). Strategic offloading of delayed intentions into the external environment. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(5), 971–992. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2014.972963

3. Risko, E. F., & Dunn, T. L. (2015). Storing information in-the-world: Metacognition and cognitive offloading in a short-term memory task. Consciousness and Cognition, 36, 61–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.05.014

4. Gilbert, S. J. (2015b). Strategic use of reminders: Influence of both domain-general and task-specific metacognitive confidence , independent of objective memory ability. Consciousness And Cognition, 33, 245–260. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015.01.006

5. Gilbert, S. J., Bird, A., Carpenter, J. M., Fleming, S. M., Sachdeva, C., & Tsai, P.-C. (2019). Optimal use of reminders: Metacognition, effort, and cognitive offloading. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000652

6. Carpenter, J., Sherman, M. T., Kievit, R. A., Seth, A. K., Lau, H., & Fleming, S. M. (2019). Domain-general enhancements of metacognitive ability through adaptive training. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(1), 51–64. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000505