By Julie Iles 19/08/2016

On every smartphone, there is probably a collection of quickly typed reminders, thoughts, grocery lists, and  titbits of information we thought we might forget.

Out-sourcing our thoughts and memories like this is called ‘cognitive offloading’. The term involves everyday activities we may take for granted. From using a calculator to check finances to depending on Google Maps to get around, cognitive offloading is what we do when we store some of our knowledge within an external object. Writing in a planner, or setting an alarm relieves the ‘cognitive burden’ of remembering it ourselves. Even relying on the internet to always know the answer is a form of cognitive offloading.

The need to offload is nothing new. The when written language was first developed it was regarded as a revolutionary tool we could use to store memories, reminders or thoughts. Even when making trail markers to find their way home, early humans were cognitively offloading.

With more advanced technologies nowadays, we are offloading more information than ever before. Science research in the area has begun to look into the potential benefits and consequences of our growing dependence on the technology in our daily lives.

On August 16th, a literature review of cognitive offloading was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Researchers Evan F. Risko, a Canadian Research chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Waterloo, and co-author Sam Gilbert, a Royal Society research fellow at University College London looked at what science has tested the topic.

What does a modern-day-thinker look like?
What does a modern-day-thinker look like?

Evan Risko said in a media release, “The growing interaction between people and technology has really brought interest in the subject to the forefront. People want to understand how technology affects the way we think.”

“There’s little doubt that these new technologies are affecting what we remember.”

What’s the cost of cognitive real estate?

Offloading onto electronic devices can be the most convenient way to keep up with the pace of life these days. However, recent research has found that this comes with unique consequences. A study that looked at museum-goers who used digital cameras to catalogue what they saw. The voluntary patrons were less likely to remember specific details about the objects they photographed.

Evan Risko says “If you’re allowed to store some to-be-remembered information on a computer, chances are you won’t devote cognitive real estate to remembering it.”

Two museum-goers at the Denver Art Museum

Risko and Gibert found the promise of a search engine could be a crutch. There was a study that found people who given the option to Google an answer to a quiz question later on, were more likely to report they didn’t know the answer to a question. If the subjects used a search engine for a quiz, then they were more confident they could have answered correctly without it. Subjects reported they would be able to easily answer questions without the internet in a subsequent quiz.

“These results suggest that participating in a human–internet transactive memory system can lead individuals to blur the distinction between what they know and what the internet ‘knows.’”

People who use google to solve a crossword puzzle might be lulled into a false sense of intelligence.

Another study found people who set reminders had a different physical response within their brains when they recalled upcoming plans.

Instead of remembering what the information is, we are spending more time remembering where we stored it.

Memory Maintenance

Moving forward, Risko and Gilbert are interested in the long-term consequences of living in a modern, high-tech environment.

Gilbert wonders, “How can technology allow us to remain independent as we grow older, and what might the downsides be to relying on external devices?”

It might be worth asking, how much do we stand to lose if the technology we offload onto gets lost or broken? The more we offload, the higher the stakes of losing it.

“There’s a lot of conversation about whether devices like smartphones are ruining us – cognitively or not,” said Risko.

“There isn’t a lot of research available yet that addresses the long-term cognitive consequences of offloading. What our Review has shown is that similar scientific principles apply to our use of a wide variety of devices, such as pen and paper, GPS trackers, and smartphones. This should make it easier for researchers to fully understand these devices’ consequences in the future.”

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