MSU faculty evaluates impact technology has on human memory

MSU faculty evaluates impact technology has on human memory

By Carly Pippin, Summer Intern for the College of Arts & Sciences


Julia S. Soares, a Mississippi State University assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, co-authored a recent report, Memory in the Digital Age, on the positive and negative aspects of technology’s implications on human memory, highlighting the decline of “muscle memory” because of over-reliance on technology.

Published in The Oxford Handbook of Human Memory: Foundations and Applications—an Oxford University Press publication—Soares’s work indicates more time is needed to determine if technology is negatively affecting humans’ memories and what implications will arise from technology. But by the time there is an answer, will it be too late, or will the good outweigh the bad? 

The article suggests most people are “an internet search away” from unlimited information and can store their memories on digital devices to reference at any time. According to research revealed in the article, technology does provide benefits for answering questions and saving information, but also has a negative impact on cognition and the ability to remember information effectively. 

Soares and Benjamin C. Storm, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, examined current research on the subject, focusing on how humans receive and store memories, develop a dependency on internet search engines and create false confidence in information retention, in addition to other topics.

A central claim in the article focuses on a study demonstrating people’s reliance on the internet and search engines to solve problems even when solutions intentionally are developed to be more accessible through other means. While having unlimited capabilities to store and find information can mitigate stress, Soares and Storm warn of the potential harm: humans could lose the ability to think critically and spontaneously without referencing an outside source. 

The two authors cite several studies on the necessity of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigation as an additional example of how humans no longer must rely on memory. Navigating surrounding areas with a GPS has reportedly resulted in lower spatial awareness. Furthermore, their research indicates that the need to constantly reference a device for directions can lead to an increase in distracted drivers on the road and reportedly takes a driver longer to arrive at their destination. 

Soares and Storm use smartphones’ high-quality camera capabilities as an example of a more recent technological development. Because technology has made snapping a photo easy and accessible, research shows this ease-of-use has caused humans to take pictures of more than just family vacations or major events. Humans now capture images to help remember aspects of their day-to-day lives. Different studies have reported positive and negative effects of taking photos to remember something. Some report that when questioned, participants relied too heavily on their phones to retain information; others found it enhanced a person's ability to recall details. 

The research article by Soares and Storm touches on the pros and cons of technology use in the classroom and how it can affect students’ attention and learning. Use of digital technology in the classroom has grown since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. They reference several studies indicating phones and laptops can distract the user and surrounding students from teachers’ lectures, leading many classrooms now to implement technology bans. 

However, Soares and Storm acknowledge a no-tolerance policy for technology can isolate students that rely on digital devices due to a disability or learning impairment, and instead recommend implementing short planned breaks during which students can check their devices. However, they acknowledge each classroom is different and should “adapt to a world full of digital distractions to figure out the best ways to facilitate student learning.” 

Overall, the majority of studies referenced by Soares and Storm conclude that participants remembered more details or performed better when technology was not involved. And while there is no definitive conclusion showing exactly how technology alters day-to-day memory, or if it is indeed a negative aspect of humans’ lives, Soares and Storm acknowledge the current digital age and how the world is changing. 

Soares said that while researchers do not know all the effects of technology, it is too late to reverse the societal changes introduced by technology. “I would argue that we’re already there—there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. Digital technology is here to stay, so we need to learn the best ways to work with it effectively. Going back isn’t really an option,” Soares said.