Have you ever gone to a concert and just stood there with your phone, taking a video of the entire thing? If so, shame on you.
Just kidding. (Well, sort of. Why splurge on a concert ticket if you plan to watch blurry footage of the entire thing later? We do have Youtube for that, and it’s free.)
Here’s the next question then, do you remember how hot or how cold it was? What the person next to you was wearing? What the air smelled like? Chances are, you don’t, right? But if you wanted to, say, check what the lead singer was wearing, all you’d have to is check your footage of the concert.
Clearly, smartphones have changed the way we live in several ways. We use them to book plane tickets, flag rides, and pay our bills. Furthermore, we also rely on them to help us remember things.
But just how effective are smartphones as memory aids?
Do Smartphones Make Us More Forgetful?
Ironically, yes. Or, at least, that’s according to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Initially, the researchers had the participants take a self-guided tour through the impressive Stanford Memorial Church. They also told them to note details like the church’s cruciform shape and the bronze angels on the massive entry doors.
In addition, some of the participants had iPods with cameras, so they were instructed to take photos. The others, on the other hand, entered the church without such equipment and instructions.
A week after the tour, the researchers surprised all the participants with a quiz about the church’s details. Guess which half scored higher?
You’d think that those with the fancy cameras fared better, right? Wrong. The participants who went on the tour without those gadgets actually scored higher than their techie counterparts.
How is this possible? For starters, there’s the ubiquity of smartphones and gadgets. Since we always have them with us, they’re a constant source of distraction. You need to pay close attention in order to form a lasting memory. Our brains create long-term ones by linking neurons linked to all the sensations involved: what a scene looked like, how it felt like, what it smelled like, and so on. The stronger the link (i.e., the more sensations you experienced, the stronger the memory), the stronger the connections.
When you’re much too focused on documenting something on your phone, you’re not likely to notice the other accompanying sensations, right? As a result, your brain has less things to anchor the memory with, so to speak.
Remembering Things Better in the Digital Age
On the other hand, it’s not all bad. The flipside is that your smartphone can help you remember certain details better. You see, the camera simply refocuses your attention on your subject, and can thus enhance your recall of its visual details.
For instance, if you take a photo of a particularly ornate piece of stained glass, you’re likely to remember its design, its lines, and color selection. However, there is a trade-off.
“Photos are increasing visual memories,” NYU cognitive scientist Alixandra Barasch says, “but it doesn’t come without a cost.” As mentioned earlier, exclusively focusing on photos and visuals makes us ignore other stimuli. And what gets ignored gets forgotten.
Perhaps what we can do is to discern when we should whip out our smartphones and when to stash them away. Thus, it’s fine to take photos when you go see an exhibit of exquisite paintings or sculptures, but if you get good tickets to a Broadway musical, you had best give it your full undivided attention. You can always post your ticket stub and rave about the show on IG afterwards.
I doubt if any of us would be willing to part with our phones completely. On the other hand, we could benefit from going on a digital detox every now and then.
Don’t get me wrong. Snapshots and active social media feeds can be a great way to commemorate milestones and experiences. Yet in documenting them, we must never forget the most important thing about significant moments. For us to reap their emotional rewards, we actually do have to live them.
Let’s try to remember that the next time we reach for our phones at another concert or at someone’s wedding.