Innovation

Digital Amnesia, Forgetting Facts And Relying On The Internet To Remember, May Promote Creativity

digital reliance
Many of us are happy to develop digital amnesia, forgetting whatever our many electronic devices can remember for us. Jewel Sahad, Getty Images

Many of us are happy to forget whatever our many electronic devices can more efficiently remember for us, a European survey finds. This “digital amnesia” is found equally among men and women and across all age groups, the report says. While many may see this as tragic, others believe this blissful oblivion could clear the path to a more creative life.

As a result of daily interactions with smartphones and computers, our memories do not resemble those of our grandparents, a separate 2011 study suggests. Dubbing this phenomenon the “Google effect,” the Columbia University-led research team says that, when we know we might need some key piece of information in the future, we are more likely to recall where we might find it, rather than actually remember the tidbit itself. The researchers conclude, “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”

Wanting to further explore this external memory drive, Kapersky lab, a cybersecurity company, commissioned researchers to survey 6,000 Europeans ranging in age from 16 years old to late middle age. An equal portion of survey respondents resided in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Benelux. Exactly half were women, half men.

In many ways, the resulting report echoes the earlier study of internet use and memory. A third of respondents would turn to the Internet when asked a question before even attempting to remember the answer themselves, the research team finds. And nearly a quarter would forget an online fact as soon as they had used it. (Sound familiar?) The researchers also discover digital amnesia is not the “preserve of younger digital natives” — older age groups suffer from it as well.

It would follow, then, that losing data stored on a digital device would cause distress: 44 percent of women and 40 percent of the 16 to 24 year olds surveyed say corrupted or compromised data would sadden them. Worse, one in four women and slightly more than a third of the younger respondents say they would panic since their phones are the only place they store contact information and certain photos.

“Reliance on digital devices, and the trust we place in them, can resemble a human relationship. The feelings are established in the same way – through experience,” Dr. Kathryn Mills, a neuroscientist at University College London, writes in the report. “If a digital device is continually reliable then we will build that into our [memories] of that device.”

Despite an increasing reliance on electronics, the researchers found just one in three people installs extra IT security on their smartphone and less than a quarter add security to their tablets.

“It can be argued that the trend to look up information before even trying to recall it prevents the build-up of long-term memories, and thus makes us process information merely on a shallow, moment-to-moment basis,” Dr. Maria Wimber, a psychologist at University of Birmingham, states in the report.

Although Wimber’s point is well-taken, other scholars might argue this ability to forget is making us more creative. In their 2014 study, UC Santa Cruz researchers designed a series of experiments requiring participants to think up new uses for an old object. The results suggest thinking and forgetting are intrinsically linked: Attempts to think of new ideas appeared to cause the study participants to forget their old ideas. And, those with the poorest memory for old concepts came up with the highest number of fresh ideas.

“Forgetting may serve the goal-directed purpose of enabling people to think creatively,” the authors conclude. Though new ideas are often born from old ones, perhaps amnesia has a place in freeing us as well.

Source:  Storm BC, Patel TN. Forgetting as a Consequence and Enabler of Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2016.

Sparrow B, Liu J, Wegner DM. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science. 2011.

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