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8 Ways Your Smartphone Is Rewiring Your Mind

Do you rely too much on technology instead of your brain? It didn’t start with the computer in your pocket

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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.”

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Indeed, technology and the computer in your pocket can help you remember certain things by sending you appointment alerts or medication reminders. You may snap a picture of a parking spot or the bottle of wine you’re enjoying at dinner. And you may jot down random thoughts or capture images and audio in a note-taking app such as Evernote.

But think about it: As computing power has miniaturized over our lifetimes, do you and the people around you remember these things better or worse than when the first smartphones went on sale?

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1. Phone numbers

Yes, you had to remember the phone numbers of everyone you cared about or carry around a bulky address book. When rotary dialing gave way to touch-tone phones, maybe your memory aid was the pattern on the push-button keypad. Now you might get in trouble or at least feel embarrassed when you have to look up your number to give to somebody else.

2. Simple arithmetic

You were a wiz at math in elementary school. Now you can’t seem to add, subtract, multiply or divide. Blame the calculator.

Sure, these machines have been around since the Nixon administration. But now you have a calculator always at the ready in your pocket, not to mention apps that might help you calculate a tip. And if you’ve embraced online bill paying and banking, you don’t have to balance your checkbook.

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3. TV channels

While you were growing up, you had seven or fewer channels to watch in your TV market. The advent of the cable era a few decades ago raised the channel count exponentially and brought more choices of things to watch and places to watch them.

The numerous streaming options that arrived more recently only added to the rich smorgasbord of TV fare. While choice is generally a good thing, it is getting that much harder to remember which service brought you which show. “Hmm, was that thing on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix or …?”

4. Social pleasantries

As you spend more time in front of a screen, you spend less time looking at fellow humans face-to-face. And you spend even less time conversing in a civil manner.

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“In addition to the facts we’re all allowing to go by the wayside, some of us are also forgetting some social processes and norms,” says Jon Zilber, 63, a San Francisco area writer and editor for technology companies. “I find myself dispensing with pleasantries in day-to-day conversation and diving into the details much more quickly, the way many of us do online.”

5. Library use

Has it been years since you visited a library? You were a regular when you had to research term papers in high school or college.

Now you just ask Google or consult Wikipedia. With apps such as Libby, you don’t even have to go to the library in person to borrow a book. If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, you may have forgotten what a printed book feels like.

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6. Good penmanship

Another staple of your educational past was learning cursive. But how can you write neatly anymore when, to put it mildly, you’re out of practice? When was the last time you sent a handwritten letter or penned anything longer than a shopping list?

Your signature is becoming a relic too, thanks in part to that electronic bill paying. While you still must occasionally use a pen to sign an insurance, legal or other document, more places are accepting digital signatures drawn with a stylus or finger, even if your John Hancock is sloppy or barely legible.

7. Proper grammar

Speaking of school days, your fourth-grade English teacher would probably cringe at how people pay little heed to grammar and punctuation when banging out texts or emails. While the word processor you use includes spellcheck and other tools that may catch mistakes or fix grammatical faux pas, finding the problems on your own is becoming a lost art.

8. Map reading

You still come across folks who swear by printed maps and atlases. But even AAA, which created its first road map in 1905 when it was known as the American Automobile Association, offers more than 400 maps in a digital version that also can be printed out.

Many people have abandoned paper maps or forgotten what it’s like to ask someone for directions. Instead, GPS navigation can tell you how to get from here to there, and that’s not a bad thing if it helps you avoid a traffic jam. Just hope that your phone doesn’t conk out before you make it to your destination or you lose the GPS signal.

“The problem for seniors nowadays is we know the way it’s always been done,” says Gary Arlen, a semiretired technology and communications researcher in Bethesda, Maryland. “Anytime we’re digital immigrants versus digital natives, we’ve got to relearn how to do things.”

And then continue to remember both ways.

This story, originally published July 25, 2022, was updated to add information from a study in the August 2022 issue of a medical journal.

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