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One sign of the times: You remember the phone number you had as a child but don’t know your own kids’ numbers — at least if you have a smartphone.
These days, you rarely need to dial a number to call loved ones, friends and people who’ve earned a coveted spot on your handset’s contacts list. Instead, you tap a name, search by typing a few letters or ask a digital assistant such as Siri or the Google Assistant to “dial” hands free on your behalf.
To be sure, we forget things more often as we get older, and most people of a certain age have those senior moments. But something else appears to be at work here: We may be too dependent on our phones, smart speakers and other tech. Or such devices distract us, so we don’t process things the way we once did.
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Writing recently in the British publication The Guardian, journalist Rebecca Seal asked, “Does having more memory in our pockets mean there’s less in our heads? Am I losing my ability to remember things — from appointments to what I was about to do next — because I expect my phone to do it for me?
You may be asking the same questions.
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A 2015 study at the University of Waterloo in Canada linked reliance on smartphones to “lazy thinking.” Gordon Pennycook, co-lead author of the study, and then a doctoral candidate in psychology, said people “may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it.”
Before his death from cancer in July 2020, neurologist Dan Kaufer, M.D., of University of North Carolina Health told UNC Health Talk: “With smartphones, you have a whole encyclopedia and beyond of information at your fingertips at any point in time. But this results in a much more superficial or shallow way to access information. The more we rely on these types of information aids or sources, the less work and processing our brains actually do.”
If you give people the ability to store information remotely, outside of their brain, they become more dependent on that, which actually can have a negative effect on people’s memory,” said Kaufer, who was founding director of the UNC Memory Disorders Program.
But some researchers believe the opposite may be true. A recent study at University College London (UCL) published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General concluded that using the phones may improve memory.
“We found that when people were allowed to use an external memory, the device helped them to remember the information they had saved into it,” Sam Gilbert, an associate professor at the university's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and one of the study’s authors told UCL News. “When people had to remember by themselves, they used their memory capacity to remember the most important information. ... Far from causing ‘digital dementia,’ using an external memory device can even improve our memory for information that we never saved.”