Smartphones are changing how and what we remember.
Should your mobile phone wear a helmet? Yes, there would be the quizzical glances from onlookers, but for a generation that is outsourcing large chunks of memory to digital devices, the absurdity comes with a big dose of gravitas.
Dr Jason Finley, assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Fontbonne University, isn’t quite advocating hardhats for handsets, but he does see visceral parallels between our phones and ourselves.
“If you consider your photo album to be part of your memory, it becomes as important to protect that external memory as it is to protect your central nervous system,” says Finley.
“Just like it’s foolhardy to ride a motorcycle without a helmet because of the risk of brain damage, it’s dangerous not to back up your hard drive.”
A 2016 Pew survey found 77 per cent of Australian adults own a smartphone – second only to Korea – and as technology extends our memory into cyberspace there are growing concerns about the real cost of all those extra terabytes. In a recent survey, Finley found 59 per cent of respondents remember fewer phone numbers now than five years ago. One person told of being taken to hospital and discovering she’d forgotten her phone.
“She wanted to call people but didn’t have any of the numbers memorised. It’s almost as if you lose the device and you suddenly have amnesia,” says Finley.
As social networks expand, offloading email addresses and phone numbers to our “e-memory” is now a physiological necessity. But it isn’t just the humdrum carving out a niche on hard drives. Google offers 15 gigabytes of free cloud storage, enough for 5000 photos. From the exhilaration of lone yoga on a mountain top to your little boy’s struggle with his backpack on the first day of school, more and more of life’s special moments are finding a permanent home outside the cranium.
But there may be hidden costs to this “shoot and save” approach.
A 2014 study found people who photographed a museum tour remembered fewer objects and fewer details (such as what the Tang dynasty warrior had in his hands) than when simply observing the pieces. And a 2011 study found factoids such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” were less likely to be remembered if the person knew they would be saved to a PC.
Dr Adrian Ward, assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas, sees a critical downside to putting experiences in storage.
“One idea of the self hinges on being able to integrate experiences from the past to who you are in the present and projecting that into the future. This autobiographical memory is crucial to identity and to using the past to predict the future,” he says.
Whether it’s decoding a friend’s newfound abruptness or waiting for that light bulb moment of scientific discovery, internal memory is where dots are joined and ideas formed.
“If you are not storing this knowledge internally then you are not developing those ideas,” says Ward.
Read the full feature at the Age newspaper here