We are outsourcing our digital memories

Prior to about 1995, I held all  telephone numbers important to me in my head. Now, I can remember my own mobile number but not my wife’s. In fact there are very few mobile numbers I bother to keep in my memory at all. I rely entirely on my phone. But it must be that I have taken a decision in my subconscious not to clutter my memory with these numbers – since they are so easy to access on my device.

A new study suggests that we are damaging our long term memories by our dependence upon our digital devices. I am not convinced. I suspect they asked the wrong questions. They have not, I think, considered or sought the type of new long-term memories that are built up instead. The study is by Kaspersky Lab and therefore needs to be taken with a very large bushel of salt. It is I think rather narrow and a little trivial.

Kaspersky-Digital-Amnesia (pdf)

Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to the potentially risky phenomenon of Digital Amnesia. Many people underestimate just how exposed their externally-stored memories can be, rarely thinking about the need to protect them with IT security, such as anti-virus software. Kaspersky Lab is committed to helping people understand the risks their data could be exposed to, and empowering them to tackle those risks. 

Digital Amnesia

I cannot see that the volume of long term memories is affected. The content of the long term memories we unconsciously choose to hold changes.

BBC:

An over-reliance on using computers and search engines is weakening people’s memories, according to a study.It showed many people use computers instead of memorising information. Many adults who could still recall their phone numbers from childhood could not remember their current work number or numbers of family members.

Maria Wimber from the University of Birmingham said the trend of looking up information “prevents the build-up of long-term memories”. The study, examining the memory habits of 6,000 adults in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, found more than a third would turn first to computers to recall information.

The UK had the highest level, with more than half “searching online for the answer first”. But the survey suggests relying on a computer in this way has a long-term impact on the development of memories, because such push-button information can often be immediately forgotten.

“Our brain appears to strengthen a memory each time we recall it, and at the same time forget irrelevant memories that are distracting us,” said Dr Wimber. …….

….. Among adults surveyed in the UK, 45% could recall their home phone number from the age of 10, while 29% could remember their own children’s phone numbers and 43% could remember their work number.

The ability to remember a partner’s number was lower in the UK than anywhere else in the European survey. There were 51% in the UK who knew their partner’s phone number, compared with almost 80% in Italy.

The study from Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity firm, says that people have become accustomed to using computer devices as an “extension” of their own brain.

It describes the rise of what it calls “digital amnesia”, in which people are ready to forget important information in the belief that it can be immediately retrieved from a digital device.

The study highlights how, as well as storing factual information, there is a trend to keep personal memories in digital form. Photographs of important moments might only exist on a smartphone, with the risk of their loss if the device is lost or stolen.

My own observations about myself are that I no longer bother memorising digital information which is easily accessed on devices, but I find (or I think I find) I can remember qualitative information (colours, pictures, past conversations, smells, ideas) in much greater detail than I used to.

 

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