Advertisement

How Technology Can Help Us Remember Better

Credit - Getty Images

In the digital age, we have the technology to document our lives in extraordinary detail via photographs, voice recordings, and social media posts. In theory, this ability to effortlessly capture the important moments of our lives should enrich our ability to remember those moments. But in practice, people often tell me they experience the opposite.

I study the neuroscience of memory and one question I hear again and again is whether technology is making us “dumber”—or, more precisely, whether it’s hurting our ability to remember. For some, the question is motivated by worry about the amount of time their children spend on screens or mobile devices. For others, it reflects concerns about their own memory problems.

A common fear is that there might be a “use it or lose it” principle at play—that an increasing dependence on our devices for reminders will lead us to lose our own capabilities to remember. This might be true for certain skills. If, for instance, you always rely on navigation apps in new or unfamiliar neighborhoods, you might not attend to features in the environment to create a mental map that would allow you to learn to navigate on your own. However, there is no reason to think that relying on technology to store important information will somehow lead your brain to wither in ways that are bad for memory. In fact, I’m all for outsourcing mundane memory tasks, like memorizing phone numbers, passwords, email addresses, and appointments. I don’t have a photographic memory—but my phone does.

So, if technology can help us “free up space” for the things we want to remember when we need to remember them, why do so many of us feel like its presence in our lives is leading us to form blurry, fragmented, and impoverished memories?

The short answer: technology isn’t the problem—it’s how we interact with it.

To form lasting memories, we need to focus on what is distinct about the present moment, those immersive sensory details we can call back up to reconstruct an experience when we remember. As we go about our daily lives, we usually do a pretty good job of focusing on what’s relevant, and for that, we can thank a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex helps us focus attention on and meaningfully process what we need to learn, to search for memories that are “in there somewhere,” and to keep our recollections accurate when we manage to remember the right thing.

But, in a world where our conversations, activities, and meetings are routinely interrupted by text messages, emails, and phone calls, these abilities get swamped—and we often compound the problem by splitting our attention between multiple goals. Multitasking can make us feel that we’re being more efficient. Many of us even pride ourselves on our ability to switch from one task to another, but it comes at a cost.

Read More: Why Multitasking Is Bad for You

Each time we are routinely distracted or intentionally toggle between different media streams (such as reading a text message while maintaining a conversation), prefrontal resources are sucked up to regain our focus. The result is that we remain one step behind, and after all is done, we are only left with blurry, fragmented memories.

Outside of the workplace, we often use technology to document our lives. The proliferation of “Instagram walls” and the throngs of people at concerts recording the action with their smartphones illustrate how technology has changed our lives. The ubiquity of smartphone cameras enables us to easily document our experiences, yet for most of us this hasn’t translated into a more expansive memory for the personal past. Again, the problem isn’t necessarily with the technology, but rather that we are filtering our experiences through the lens of a camera.

Taking photos does not necessarily have a good or bad effect on memory. The critical factors involve how you direct your attention and whether you meaningfully engage with the subject matter. Our brains are designed to do more with less, by engaging meaningfully with a little bit of high-quality information rather than amassing a massive catalog of information. When we focus on “documenting” over “experiencing,” we don’t pay attention to what is distinctive in the moment, the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that make an experience unique—and memorable. Without those immersive details, something that was so vivid when we experienced it (a family vacation or child’s violin recital) can wind up feeling as distant to us as a story we read in a book. By trying to record every moment, we don’t focus on any one facet of the experience in enough detail to form distinctive memories that we will retain.

The negative potential of technology is exacerbated by a culture of sharing experiences on social media platforms. Social media engagement can have a negative effect on memory, partly because it involves multitasking (e.g., switching between recording the moment and engagement with social media platforms) and increases the potential for distraction.

Social media itself isn’t bad for memory, per se. Like most forms of technology, it’s a tool that when used properly can even enhance our memory of an event, but the images we post are often accompanied by captions with brief descriptions, rather than a thorough reflection on the event. Some platforms like Snapchat and Instagram stories, feature photo posts that disappear within 24 hours—an apt metaphor for the way in which mindless documentation can leave us bereft of lasting memories for our experiences.

Read More: How to Make Your Mind Happy, According to Neuroscience

Technology can enhance memory if it is used consistently with principles that help us remember. Thoughtfully taking pictures or videos at opportune moments can orient us to what is interesting and distinctive around us. My daughter, for instance, likes to selectively photograph plants and flowers that catch her eye on our nature walks, which allows her to pause and fully take in those aspects of the scenery as we are experiencing them in the moment.

After you take those pictures and videos, organize them in a way that will allow you to find them later (as we used to in the old days with photo albums) and make sure to revisit them later on. In the following weeks, revisit those photos and use them as cues to mentally re-experience those events, bringing back as many details as possible. By using the photos almost like a “test” of your memory, and spacing out those tests, you can enhance your ability to retain memories of the entire event, not only what is in the photo. Journaling can be another way to enhance memory because it allows us to test our memory for an event and also integrate it in a meaningful way, so that we can shape our narrative of the experience.

As with memory itself, a key principle for technology is that “less is more.” All the life-logging in the world will not enable us to remember all our experiences, nor is that a desirable goal in the first place. Our memories for events are selective, but they also can have a great deal of detail, meaning, and emotion. By mindfully using technology in ways that allow us to access those aspects of our past experiences, we can hold on to what matters.

Contact us at letters@time.com.