People rely on devices to store information, but that's not a bad thing, researchers say

With smartphones and automated technologies taking care of our information for us, the means to store information outside of our brains is endless. But does this “information offloading” have an impact on the brain’s memory function?

Technology is remembering more for us; however, it’s susceptible to manipulation

Many post-secondary students now type their lecture notes on their computers and tablets instead of writing them down. (Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Originally published on Oct. 25, 2019.

While we might feel like we can't remember enough, there's nothing wrong with relying on technology, says researcher Evan Risko.

"Most of us are familiar with the experience of forgetting, and it can be frustrating at times," the University of Waterloo associate professor told Spark host Nora Young. 

"The fact that we forget is likely a functional part of our cognitive system. Storing all the information we ever encounter would be difficult to manage."

There was once a time when everyone knew their friends' phone numbers — now, many trust a device more than themselves, leaving some experts to wonder if this "information offloading" is making their memory and information control worse.

The fear of technology replacing human functions is valid, said Risko, who is also the Canada research chair in embodied and embedded cognition.

"Anytime there's been kind of massive changes in the technological environment, we've seen concern.

"[But] it doesn't mean that it's going to turn out badly. I think it should motivate us to be careful, as we should [be]."

Brains are not computers

'Our memory is fragile and imperfect in many ways,' says Evan Risko, University of Waterloo associate professor. (Wikipedia)

In his book Scatterbrain: How the Mind's Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative, and Successful, neuroscientist Henning Beck argues our brains — to be as efficient as possible — are constantly dumping and rearranging information.

Rather than being an endless storage space, he compares the brain to an orchestra: our brain cells interact with each other like musicians.

"It is about creating that specific memory at this very moment, just like [how] an orchestra creates music at that very moment … [it's] not stored anywhere," he told Young.

Accordingly, Risko says human brains can often be faulty.

"Our memory is fragile and imperfect in many ways," he said.

"And writing things down, or storing them in some sort of digital memory, gives us the advantage of a highly accurate memory store."

Benefits and disadvantages of offloading 

But technology is susceptible to manipulation, he notes.

In an experiment at the Cognition and Natural Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Waterloo, researchers gave participants an external storage tool, such as a word processor, as an aid to memorize a list of words. 

On the last trial, the researchers changed some of the information the participants had recorded to see if they would notice — and they didn't.

A Winnipeg woman using her smartphone. (CBC)

Navigational aids can also impair spatial memory, with users blindly following their GPS rather than looking at landmarks or buildings, according to Risko.

"If I follow a route using these types of technologies if I'm then I have to follow that route again without it, I won't be as fast. I won't remember as many scenes from the route that I travelled," said Risko.

"[But] we should weigh that against the benefits. I know if I didn't have GPS … I wouldn't get to half the places I was going [to]."

Written by Chelsey Gould. Interviews produced by Adam Killick, Josh Flear and Nora Young.