Humanity’s desire to be remembered—and to remember—has led to some our most breathtaking accomplishments: the pyramids at Giza, India’s Taj Mahal, and the gargantuan stone faces at Mt. Rushmore. Our desire to memorialize important experiences is as old as humanity itself. What’s changing, and rapidly, is how quickly we create and share those memories.
Some argue that smartphones and social media are simply replacing stonework and canvas as a way to remember important events, while others worry our device-addicted culture is causing the rapid decline of civilization as we know it. The reality is most likely somewhere in the middle. Smartphones do have an effect on our memories and our cognition, but like any tool, the difference they make depends on how we use them.
Here are 6 ways smartphones can affect memory and cognition:
1. Using your smartphone can free up brain space
Ever go to the store to get lemonade, notice that cookies are on sale, and then leave with the cookies but not the lemonade? It’s because we all have limited working memory capacity—the amount of cognitive resources available to control whatever we have going on at a given moment. If we suddenly take up mental real estate to think about cookies, lemonade may end up out in the boondocks.
Smartphones are helpful when it comes to preserving working memory capacity. We can enter loads of daily minutia (names, shopping lists, appointments, phone numbers, recipes) into our device and have the rest of our working memory free for whatever might come up—like those clearance cookies. This also boosts our cognitive capacity because, free from worrying about the little things we have stored away in our smartphones, we have more cognitive resources to focus on navigating the tasks in front of us.
2. Smartphones may affect recall
Taking photos is a great way to freeze-frame a memory, but a study published in May 2018 found that using social media to record and share experiences while engaged still engaged in them impairs a person’s memory of those experiences.
Another study showed that taking photos helped people remember visual aspects of an experience, but fewer auditory aspects. So taking pictures may hinder our ability fully enjoy and remember all aspects of an experience, though pictures can help strengthen the visual aspects.
3. Smartphones may impair your ability to learn new information
Studies have also demonstrated that using mobile devices while trying to learn new material can reduce comprehension and academic performance, but interestingly, using a device did not affect performance on self-paced tasks, when someone could use their device and then go back to the task at the same spot where they left off. So smartphones may be no different, in and of themselves, than any other distraction. But the expansive personal relevance smartphones have in our lives make them a harder distraction to ignore.
4. Smartphones can help create and strengthen memories
Let’s give credit where credit is due: being able to easily take a photo or video and share it can help us remember people and events. Creating these external memories (pictures) can help those with impaired memory make and remember connections to people and events. Constantly taking pictures during an experience can distract us from that experience, but having those pictures can be a powerful reminder, especially for those who struggle with cognitive decline.
5. Smartphones may reduce cognitive capacity
No, smartphones do not make you dumber. But they can put a drain on our cognitive capacity, thereby reducing our ability to complete tasks at hand, even if we are not using them at the time.
We have a finite capacity for cognitive processing, but we’re constantly surrounded by an overwhelming amount of information from signs, commercials, people around us, background noise, and our own thoughts. The reason we can navigate this information overload is because we have the ability to only pay attention to a small amount of information at a time, and our brains learn which information it needs to watch for. This is why you might instantly notice your name being called on the loudspeaker in the middle of a busy airport.
Your brain helps you choose the stimuli relevant to your current situation, including both long- and short-term goals. The challenge is that because our smartphones are associated with so many of our relevant activities, we can get to a point where a portion of our brain is always paying attention to the smartphone, even if it’s not in our hand at the moment. If you’re in a work meeting, part of your mind could be paying attention to your phone because you know your kid might text you or you might get an important news update.
By always having a portion of our minds tuned into our smartphones, our ability to fully focus on, and enjoy, the task at hand is reduced.
6. Smartphones could contribute to identity distortions
Granted, this ones just a hypothesis at this point, but worth thinking about. An article in The Conversation theorizes that having too many photos of our past may cause our perception of the past to become too fixed.
But if we document every moment of our lives with photos, then our memories may be too tied down to those photos, to the detriment of other elements of memory like sounds, smells, and feelings. A solid stream of photos also allows for less flexibility in the narrative of our past, and some flexibility is important as our brains reinterpret our memories to fit in with who we’ve become.
Another issue is that the photos we take on our smartphones and share on social media may not be an accurate representation of who we really are. Posed and filtered photos at our best moments may tell a distorted and limited story of our past. These photos, meant to tell a certain story to others, can affect the way we perceive ourselves.
Smartphones are a powerful tool. They keep us speeding toward the future while helping us to remember our past. But, like anything, overuse can be detrimental. We need to remember to experience the world and create memories without the use of a screen, so that when we scroll through picture of our Italy trip, we remember not just what things looked like, but what everything felt like.
Smartphones can be used to free up our capacity to focus on other things, but if we rely on them too heavily, they could dictate and distort the very memories we are trying to capture.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.