Digital amnesia: Are we handing our memories over to our handhelds?

Many people don’t worry about remembering phone numbers, special birthdays or anniversaries anymore; after all, they’re just a cellphone away.

This phenomenon has been coined “digital amnesia” — the experience of forgetting information you trust a digital device to store and remember for you.

Although digital amnesia has not been recognized scientifically yet, cognitive scientists agree that relying less on the mind builds fewer neuron connections in the brain, stagnating its development.

But for Ariel Evans, her smartphone is her lifeline. A Penn State senior majoring in English with a minor in labor and employment relations, Evans admits she is dependent on her cellphone and uses it to remember her work and class schedules, as well as phone numbers of family and friends. She even uses a birthday reminder app that notifies her of upcoming birthdays from her contact list.

“I got so busy with school this year, I forgot my dad’s birthday. If I didn’t have my phone, I’d be lost,” said Evans.

So could this dependence on digital devices be dangerous?

“Without a doubt technology has transformed our lives and has also seemingly altered the way our brains work,” said Nancy Dennis, Penn State associate professor of psychology. “However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

According to Dennis, the reliance on handheld devices to store and remember such information as phone numbers, dates and passwords is helping by freeing the brain to enable it to hold more lasting memories, engage in analytical thinking and partake in the creative process.

Mike McNeese, former senior associate dean of Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and director of the Multi-disciplinary Initiatives and Naturalistic Decision Systems Lab, agrees that creating a solid lasting memory trace is more than just memorizing phone numbers.

“In today’s society, where we have Twitter, Facebook and other social networking technologies, memory becomes a social cognitive phenomena in which our technological devices allow us to be more highly coupled with friends, family and colleagues,” said McNeese. “As a result, we engage information processing in ways we didn’t have before the advent of cellphones. Through interaction with others, we exercise our brains and those memories have more meaning and become constructed and encoded in our minds.”

Additionally, some cognitive experts say that while there’s no problem using Google to find answers to questions, it’s a good idea to step back and reflect on the new information to help retain it.

And when it comes to studying, Dennis recommends students practice retrieval, rather than reading, as a way to remember important points.

“Most students read their course material over and over again to retain the information. By doing this, however, they’re not getting that deep, semantic organizational structure they need to create meaningful links to the knowledge base they already have,” said Dennis. “As a result, the information is easily forgotten come test time. One of the best ways to study information is to actually test yourself on it beforehand and try to recall, or retrieve, what it means.”

In addition to creating meaningful links to memories, Dennis says the key to strengthening the mind is by learning new things.

“Focusing on social interactions and engaging in something novel will keep the brain stimulated and the mind sharp,” said Dennis.

However, for Dennis, “novel” is the operative word when it comes to maximizing memory.

“If you do crossword puzzles all the time, that’s not time spent learning something new,” she said. “Unfortunately, it just makes you really good at doing crossword puzzles.”

Instead, Dennis suggests taking a dance class as an alternative to crossword puzzles. “It’s a win-win because now you’re moving around and being socially engaged at the same time,” she said.

But if joining a dance class isn’t in the cards right now, don’t worry. It is probably more important to understand the long-term implications of digital amnesia and how to take steps to protect the information on your handheld device.

“Through such security measures as incorporating strong passwords, keeping operating systems and apps up to date with the latest versions, and being careful of what’s downloaded, users will be able to secure and protect the information no longer stored in their minds,” said Paul Kletchka, system and network security analyst in Penn State’s Office of Information Security.

So, even if you forget your dad’s birthday, at least your phone won’t.

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