Smartphones Are Making Us Think Less, Google More

We’re outsourcing our memory, says a new study, but the news isn’t all bad.

Photo by Wendy Granger

When was the last time you memorized a friend’s new phone number? How about the last time you pulled out your phone to Google a random trivia fact? Chances are you’re doing far more of the latter these days—but that kind of convenience may have a downside. A new study suggests that our brains’ reliance on smartphones may be taking a toll on our thought processes for problem solving, memory recall, and learning.

Researchers call the tendency to use the Internet (and specifically, those always-at-our-fingertips smartphones) as a memory aid “cognitive offloading.” And this habit, they say, is actually changing the way the brain works: While we may think of memory as something that happens inside our heads, it is increasingly happening with the help of outside devices. Whether this is a good or bad thing, they say, is a more difficult question to answer.

The authors of the new report, published in the journal Memory, wanted to see how likely it was that people would reach for a computer or smartphone when quizzed on different topics. So they divided volunteers into two groups—one that was told to use Google and one that was not—and asked them challenging trivia questions about sports, pop culture, and history. Next, they asked much easier questions, giving both groups the option of using the Internet if they wanted.

Even though the second set of questions required less knowledge, the people who had previously used Google were significantly more likely to go back to the search engine for help than those who had previously used only their memories. The Googlers also spent less time consulting their own memories before reaching for the Internet—and nearly a third of them did not even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.

The results suggest that our habit for cognitive offloading increases after each use, says lead author Benjamin Storm, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother,” he says. “As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives."

That’s not necessarily all bad, he points out: The Internet is obviously more comprehensive, and in many cases, faster and more dependable, than human memory. It’s helpful to have that wealth of knowledge always available—and to not have to keep every trivial fact or figure in our heads for easy recall. The Internet can also be beneficial, Storm points out, for older adults whose own cognitive capacities have begun to decline.

But the broader implications of this research are ultimately much more nuanced, he adds.

“Certainly there are advantages to becoming reliant on the Internet, especially given the breadth and depth of the information to which it gives us access, but there are also likely to be disadvantages,” he says. “To what extent, for example, does our capacity for wisdom and creative insight depend on the accumulation of internal knowledge? These are the sorts of questions that will need to be answered.”

Storm wants more research into the ways humans might manage their relationship with the Internet to take advantages of the benefits while minimizing those potential costs. For now, he says, Internet use in “healthy moderation” seems like the best course of action for those who want to keep their recall and problem-solving skills sharp.

And maybe the next time someone asks you a question you’re not sure about, really think on it for a minute or two before whipping your phone out. “There might be something to be said about practicing one’s cognitive and memory abilities outside the context of the Internet,” Storm says.