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07 January 2020 by Gemma Bianchi

Is digital making us stupid?

Is digital making us stupid?

With an answer to almost anything ‘one click’ or ‘question to Alexa’ away, are we forgetting how to retain information, treating developments in digital like an extension to our own memory?

Not so long ago, if you didn’t know how to spell a word you would look it up and find a way to remember it. Tactics like ‘i before e’ or breaking the word into 3 chunks. Now, whether you're using ‘notes’ on a MacBook, writing a text on an android phone or Microsoft word to write a letter, built in spell checkers mean you never actually have to know how to spell anything. Most of the time, the software will correct the word without you even knowing.

A more recent advance to the spell checker, launched by google in 2018 on the gmail platform, is ‘Smart-Compose’ which lets you use autocomplete suggestions as you start a sentence to write your emails faster.

A study by The Kaspersky Lab suggests 90% of people are suffering from digital amnesia. More than 45% of us don't know our significant others contact number.

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The reports continues by saying we don't commit data to memory because of the “Google Effect" & that devices are being used as digital brains, to store information people need to remember. We’re better at remembering where to go to look up information than we are at remembering the information itself.

A staggering two thirds of people use digital calendars to remember future plans, birthdays and anniversaries - rather than their memory.

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This even extends to photographs. A Fairfield University study in 2003 found that taking photos reduces our memories. Participants were asked to look around a museum, and those who took photos of each object remembered fewer objects and details about them than those who simply observed.

Back in 1995, the first SatNav was released in the United States, although it didn’t become ‘mainstream’ until about 2002. In a paper co-authored by University College London neuroscientist Sam Gilbert, Dr Risko reviewed studies into ‘cognitive offloading’ – or using the outside world to save on brain power. These include studies on SatNav use, which found that while they helped motorists on their journey, they affected memory.

Astonishingly, almost half of all motorists admit they would abandon their journey if their SatNav broke. Even worse, there have been several reports of people driving their cars right into rivers, because their ‘SatNav’ said so, like this guy for example -

It seems digital doesn’t just affect memory, but common sense too.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember and The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us, believes we should be alarmed. He believes our brains are not like hard drives, or refrigerators that can get overstuffed so there's no more room. In contrast, he says they expand: "It's not as if remembering and thinking are separate processes. The more things you remember, the more material you have to work on, the more interesting your thoughts are likely to be,"

With 80% of people more reliant on their digital devices now for accessing information than five years ago, what functionality will the human brain have in another 5 years? Should we be more concerned about illness such as dementia? Will we cease to bring up a modern day Alan Turing that can make the world a better place?

What can we do?

It’s not all doom. “Research highlights how digital technology is fusing synergistically with the human mind to create an ‘augmented self’. As we progressively offload basic psychological functions to digital technology, we are liberating our minds to focus on what truly matters; love, happiness and wisdom” says Dr Marsden.

There are also measures we can take to protect the memories and information that we so willingly outsource to our digital devices:

  • Simple, but seemingly obvious: spend less time being reliant on our laptops, phones, tablets, voice assistants & SatNavs! Make the effort to do simple calculations in your head without a calculator and map out your next journey with a map before you set off
  • Debate with friends and family before heading to trusty Google & turn your autocorrect off so you can properly learn and remember how to spell a word
  • Take a step back and dedicate time to truly learning something to the point where you could write about it or deliver a presentation on it
  • Take a detox day away from digital. Go for a walk, read a book, go and work out

Don’t allow your cognitive ability to be hindered by over reliance on technology. The ability to learn, memorise and be creative is vital to humanity. After all, who knows if we’ll have the internet forever?