Digital Amnesia: Do Phones Really Help Our Memory?
Fri, December 9, 2022

Digital Amnesia: Do Phones Really Help Our Memory?



For most people, recalling phone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries is an easy feat because they can just rely on their phones to store this information, according to Penn State News, the Penn State University’s official news website. This phenomenon is called “digital amnesia,” in which individuals forget information they trust a device to remember for them.

Digital amnesia has not been recognized in the scientific field, but cognitive scientists agree that relying less on our minds builds fewer neuron connections and impairs their growth. Arial Evans, a Penn State senior majoring in English with a minor in labor and employment relations, relies on her phone to remember her work and class schedules, her family and friends’ phone numbers, and birthdays. Evans admitted, “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.”



The Prevalence of Digital Amnesia

Kaspersky Lab, a multinational cybersecurity and anti-virus provider, commissioned Arlington Research to survey 6,000 consumers aged between 16 and 65, split equally between men and women in 2015, with 1,000 respondents each from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Kaspersky Lab found that 53% of respondents used the notes function on their phone to record or store information that they need to remember, 51% wrote it in a notebook/on paper, and 33% wrote it in my paper calendar/diary, 32% wrote it in their online calendar, 30% sent themselves an email/text message, 21% just tried to remember it until they need it, 12% recorded a voice note on their phone, and 3% answered other.  

Since devices provide people with the ability to easily store information, 52% of respondents said they have been significantly more reliant now on their smartphone or tablet for accessing information more than five years ago. 51% said they have been significantly more reliant on their devices when taking and storing photos, followed by wayfinding/traveling (49%), communicating with friends/arranging social events (46%), remembering information (35%), and banking (33%).

Another survey was conducted by research firm Opinion Matters in December 2018 involving over 2,500 consumers in the US and Canada aged between 16 and 55 split evenly between male and female, reported Kaspersky Lab. When asked if they recall some of the information without looking it up, 64% of participants said they still remember the full address they lived at when they were 10 years old, 54% said they still remember how much money is currently in their bank account, and 51% still recall the phone number for the house they lived in when they were 10.



Among other information they still recall without looking it up were their credit or debit card number (24%), their phone number for their best friend when they were 10 (19%), and their best friend’s full address when they were 10. 14% remembered none of the above. Considering that most respondents (76%) agreed that they are dependent on technology in their personal life, the survey also found that 24% of respondents used a security solution on their devices while only 52% said they protect their mobile device with a PIN or password. 22% reported educating themselves about cybersecurity and online privacy to protect their personal data.

Kaspersky concluded that devices also exacerbate digital amnesia among people despite devices providing us the ability to remember important information and to gain new knowledge. Digital amnesia will not end anytime soon, so it is important for consumers to safeguard their devices from potential security threats.



Does Relying On Technology Make Us Shallow Thinkers?

Dr. Maria Wimber, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, noted that Kaspersky Lab’s results were double-edged, cited Helen O’ Neil of Reader’s Digest, an American general-interest family magazine. Wimber told Kaspersky Lab, “There is an argument to be made that looking up information online, instead of trying to recall it ourselves, makes us shallower thinkers.”

Our brains have limits, reminded Wimber. She asserted that phones can enhance our memory since these devices record information externally, freeing up space for long-term memory. In Wimber’s perspective, forgetting is not actually a bad thing.

Presently, scientists across the globe are studying how our addiction to gadgets is affecting us such as the impact of technology on the cognitive development in young people, including how adults rely on their phones instead of thinking about or reflecting on the information given to them. Survival expert from Western Australia Bob Cooper asserted that individuals are becoming dangerously reliant on technology, especially with the use of GPS for wayfinding. Cooper, who has taught wilderness skills for 30 years, noted that people are losing both “bush-craft skills” and “common sense skills” due to technology.



Travelers can use GPS and electronic map readers to find isolated areas, but they won’t know what to do when it stops working, Cooper said. Some technology writers echoed his opinion, claiming that mechanization and AI have made us more unintelligent and miserable.  




Is It Bad to Depend on Digital Devices?

Nancy Dennis, Penn State associate professor of psychology, said, “Without a doubt technology has transformed our lives and has also seemingly altered the way our brains work.” But it’s not necessarily a bad thing as relying on our devices to record and recall information frees our brain to help it retain more lasting memories, think analytically, and enable creativity.

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, affirmed that having a “solid lasting memory trace” involves more than memorizing contact details.

McNeese argued that devices allow people to interact with their friends, loved ones, and colleagues on social media, enabling their memories to transform into social cognitive phenomena. He added, “As a result, we engage information processing in ways we didn’t have before the advent of cellphones.” Our memories become more meaningful and more constructed as we exercise our brains through social interaction, helping us cement them into our minds. 



If people insist on storing information in their phones, they have to create strong passwords, exercise caution when downloading files, and update operating systems and applications to protect whatever is recorded in the device, stated Paul Kletchka, system and network security analyst in Penn State’s Office of Information Security.

Nowadays, we rely on technology for wayfinding, recalling our loved one’s birthdays, learning new things, and documenting information. It’s not bad to use our phones but users must also try not to be too dependent on their device.