What is Digital Amnesia And Is It Real?

Are we getting more stupid because of smart devices?


In Johnny Depp’s underwhelming 2014 sci-fi flop, Transcendence, Depp plays a character who uploads his consciousness onto the internet in his dying moments, becoming a super intelligence who lives online. We may not be at that stage yet, but many people are already outsourcing their brain functions to the web, though we are not necessarily becoming more intelligentas a consequence. A study conducted by cyber-security company Kaspersky Lab, released last week, found that 91.2% of respondents now ’use the Internet as an online extension of their brain’.

Now that smartphones are ubiquitous - and tablets and laptops nearly so - internet access in the developed world is rarely more than a second away. Having such easy access to information is causing people to stop bothering to remember the same facts that they used to. With phone numbers also stored in smart phones, people are also no longer remembering phone numbers. Out of more than 1000 Americans surveyed for the Kaspersky Lab survey, more than half said they couldn't recall their friends and neighbours’ phone numbers, while 44% said they couldn't remember their siblings' numbers.

As a result of this, people are no longer remembering the things themselves, but instead simply where to find them. The implications of this aren’t entirely clear. As with any major shift in the way the human brain works, it could be some time before we see the real impact on human intelligence. Or we may not, if we’re too stupid.

According to university researchers, it is highly likely that we will lose long-term memory function. Maria Wimber, of the University of Birmingham, notes that: ‘Past research has repeatedly demonstrated that actively recalling information is a very efficient way to create a permanent memory. In contrast, passively repeating information (eg. by repeatedly looking it up on the Internet) does not create a solid, lasting memory trace in the same way. Based on this research, 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.’

There is, however, no study to show how many people could remember before, to act as a comparison. The study also found that nearly nine in ten could not recall the numbers for their children's schools, but could many when everyone relied on a physical phone book instead of the one stored in their phone? Einstein once said you should never memorize anything you can look up, and there may well be an advantage to having space freed up.

The major worry for many is that people are relying on photos on their phones to act as memories of events and people. As these fade from physical memory, the emotional damage caused by losing the data from a smart phone could be great. Over half of women (51%), and nearly the same number of 25 to 34 year-olds, said they would be overwhelmed by sadness if their smartphones were taken as they have memories stored on their devices that they believe they might never get back. 


Read next:

Going To Market With Digital Products: Developing A Software Sales Culture