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Creating memories could help improve memory skills

Using digital devices to create memories could help improve memory skills rather than causing people to become lazy or forgetful, finds a new study led by UCL researchers.

The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, showed that digital devices help people to store and remember very important information. This, in turn, frees up their memory to recall additional less important things.

Neuroscientists have previously expressed concerns that the overuse of technology could result in the breakdown of cognitive abilities and cause “digital dementia”.

However, the findings show that using a digital device as external memory not only helps people to remember the information saved in the device, but also helps them to remember unsaved information too.

Researchers created a memory exercise that can be played on a touchscreen digital tablet or computer to illustrate this. The test was carried out by 158 individuals ranging in age from 18 to 71. Participants were shown up to 12 numbered circles on the screen and were instructed to drag some to the left and others to the right. At the end of the trial, their salary was determined by the number of circles they remembered to pull to the correct side. One side was labeled 'high value,' which meant that remembering to draw a circle to this side was worth ten times as much as remembering to drag a circle to the other low-value side.

Participants performed this task 16 times. They had to use their memory to remember half of the trials and they were allowed to set reminders on the digital device for the other half. The results found that participants tended to use digital devices to store the details of the high-value circles. And, when they did so, their memory for those circles was improved by 18%. Their memory for low-value circles was also improved by 27%, even in people who had never set any reminders for low-value circles.

However, results also showed a potential cost to using reminders. When they were taken away, the participants remembered the low-value circles better than the high-value ones, showing that they had entrusted the high-value circles to their devices and then forgotten about them.

Senior author, Dr. Sam Gilbert (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) said: "We wanted to explore how storing information in a digital device could influence memory abilities. “We found that when people were allowed to use external memory, the device helped them to remember the information they had saved into it. This was hardly surprising, but we also found that the device improved people’s memory for unsaved information as well.

This was because using the device changed how people used their memory to store high-importance vs low-importance information. When people had to remember things on their own, they used their memory ability to remember the most significant details. When they were able to operate the device, they saved critical information into it and used their memory for less important information.

"The findings demonstrate that external memory techniques are effective. Rather than triggering "digital dementia," using an external memory device can strengthen our memory for knowledge we never saved. However, we must take care to back up the most critical information. Otherwise, if a memory tool fails, we may be left with very minor information in our memories."

The research was funded by the ESRC and the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

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