Researchers look at how brain power is affected by digital technologies

How much is our reliance on smartphones as memory aides affecting the way our brains work? CBC Radio science columnist Torah Kachur looks into a new Canadian review of the benefits, and costs, of these daily "information offloads."

'Cognitive offloading' frees up brain power, but long-term effects are still unclear, according to new review

Writing down a phone number in a smartphone is an example of 'cognitive offloading.' Researchers are still studying the long-term effects of this on our brains. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This probably sounds familiar — you book an appointment, make an entry on your smartphone, and completely forget about it until the alert reminds you the day before.

But how much is our reliance on smartphones as memory aides affecting the way our brains work?

CBC Radio science columnist Torah Kachur has looked into a new Canadian review of the benefits, and costs, of these daily "information offloads."

What does the latest research review look at? 

Two psychologists from the University of Waterloo — Evan Risko and Sam Gilbert — looked at the research that has been done in the field of "cognitive offloading," in a new review published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Cognitive offloading is basically the idea that you can assign the duties of your brain power onto a device, to save your brain space.

The researchers wanted to look at two facets in the field — what triggers this behaviour, and what the measurable consequences might be.

They found the research suggests this cognitive offloading can be both good, and potentially bad, for our brains.

Why is writing down information good for our brains?

When we write something down, our brains aren't bogged down with trying to remember what we need for groceries or the time of the dentist appointment. Instead, our brain is free to do more relevant and complex tasks — like pondering the meaning of life.

Writing down a grocery list frees our brains for more relevant and complex tasks. (Shutterstock)
While our brains are incredibly powerful, they're also somewhat lazy in that they're built to conserve energy and be as efficient as possible. So something like using a smartphone to remember an appointment, rather than committing it to memory, is energy efficient.

And it's not just smartphones that allow us to do this cognitive offloading — it could also be anything from counting with our fingers, using a calculator for simple arithmetic, writing down the grocery list, or even the simple act of tilting our heads to make angled text easier to read. All of these processes allow us to dedicate our brains to the hard stuff.

Is cognitive offloading via smartphones a problem?

That's actually not something we have an answer to quite yet, because the long-term studies just haven't been done.

We do know that cognitive offloading definitely affects short-term memory. Evan Risko, the co-author of the new research review, points to a 2013 study that looked at another smart technology that changes the way we use memory — the digital camera.

Evan Risko studies cognition at the University of Waterloo. (University of Waterloo)
In the experiment, two groups in an art museum were asked to observe an object. One group took a picture of the object, the other simply observed. Then they had their memories of the object tested — and sure enough, the photo-taking group displayed a poorer recall of what they'd seen.

"The argument was that this notion of taking a picture is a form of offloading," Rasko said.

"The object that you're looking at is now semi-permanently stored in some external medium, so maybe I don't need to expend the cognitive resources to encode that object in memory."

How much has technology decreased what we actually remember?

That's hard to say, but the more we offload, the less we remember. And it's a "use it or lose it" scenario with your brain. 

So if you put a note into your phone, take a picture of something so that you won't forget it, or write something down and then promptly plunk yourself in front of the TV, that offloading is not doing you any good.  

But if you put the task of remembering aside so that you can go about your work of being a rocket scientist, it's a very good thing — since you can now dedicate all your brain power to this complex cognitive task.

Should we be concerned about using smartphones to remember things?

Probably not. The reality is that it does free up cognitive real estate in our brains, and we can focus on more complex tasks like thinking about our financial plan, or where our next vacation will be, or whatever else you deem important in your life.

Risko has a good reminder for people worried about the effect of smartphones on our brain power.

The introduction of any technology with a cognitive component - like the smartphone - raises concerns about effects on memory, says cognition expert Evan Risko. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)
"There's long been concern, pretty much with the introduction of every technology that has a cognitive component, with worries about the future consequences of what's going to happen," he said — even with something like the advancement of writing.

"There was a lot of concern... about whether this would ruin our memories. Because the ability to write things down and read it in a book, you don't have to store it all in mind as people used to."

Needless to say, the act of writing has definitely helped us all not miss appointments and remember what to get at the grocery store — and we have not had a major decline in brain power in the last several hundred years.

That being said, if you're generally someone who isn't challenged cognitively by thinking about deeper problems or complex tasks, then maybe training your brain with a to-do list every now and then would be good for brain health.


Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of