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Technology Is Ruining Our Memories—And Also Might Be Making Us Smarter

With Facebook and cellphones, we no longer have to remember our friends’ birthdays or their phone numbers. A new study shows how all that forgetting might be a good thing. 

Saving information on a computer changes the way our brains store information, making it easier to learn something new, according to scientists at University of California, Santa Cruz. “By saving some information, people put themselves in a better position to remember other information,” the Psychological Science study says.

Outsourcing info for later wasn’t invented with the PC, of course: writing a shopping list or scribbling on a post-it serve the same function. But technology has revolutionized how much we can outsource, and how accessible that information then is.

The researchers asked 20 students to memorize two lists of ten common nouns, each in a separate PDF file. Half of the participants were instructed to save the first file before moving onto the second list; the other half closed the file without saving. When the students were tested, the group that had clicked “save” could remember more words from the second list. They didn't worry about remembering the first list, freeing up cognitive resources to learn the new words.

When the first list contained fewer words the effect lessened—the participants didn’t use many cognitive resources trying to remember the words, whether or not they had saved the list. And the effect didn’t hold when participants weren’t confident that the file had saved successfully, they still used part of their brains on remembering the first words. 

The experiment only tested people’s ability to memorize, but the researchers believe that this process may also enhance our critical thinking skills. The more we can outsource memory, the more we can use our brain on other, more interesting functions.