An ages old complaint is that new technology harms memory. Why remember something when you can look it up?

In a course on Human Memory I distinctly recall an interesting discussion on phones and memory, and an interesting point came up; even though smart phones mean we no longer remember phone numbers as often as we used to we have to remember passwords, userids and other trivial bits of information which keeps our encoding skills sharp. However I don't recall and studies to support this hypothesis.

Are there any recent studies to suggest whether users of portable digital tools like smartphones actually perform worse on any memory-related psychometrics?

And no I'm not talking about these extremely questionable Cellphones Harm Memory in Mice stories the media has picked up on. I'm not concerned with electromagnetic radiation's effects on the brain, but rather the effect of having easy access to external information.


2 Answers 2


One relevant study by Sparrow et al. (2011) that came out last year in Science was on the "Google effect": When subjects expected that they'd be able to have later access to information, their memory was poorer for it. We can extrapolate to smartphones -- if individuals know they have information at their fingertips, they don't need to worry so much about retaining that information.

Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner (2011) Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips Science 1207745 Published online 14 July 2011 [DOI:10.1126/science.1207745] (Free PDF)

  • $\begingroup$ (Sorry for the short answer, I was in a bit of a hurry.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 2, 2012 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting finding! I doubt that's all of the potential effects but I've certainly had this feeling in regards to my smartphone. $\endgroup$
    – Zelda
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ That's fine @AndyDeSoto, i like things straight to the point. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 2, 2012 at 7:22

As far as I know, there doesn't seem to be any straight-forward answer to this question.

The research mentioned in Andy's answer does affirm that there is a loss in memory but there is a difference between searching Google and looking a phone number on smartphone. In case of Google search, you most probably select a link at the fourth or fifth variation of your search. But in case of smartphones, you are just going to have a look at the address book to get your phone-number.

Keeping in view the wider context of the question, cognition is most probably regarded as an action happening within the mind. Simply put it, we reach a decision by using our cognitive skills alone without any reference to any external source at the time of decision. This is not the case.

If an external source is always going to aid our process of cognition, it could well be constructed a part of our cognition provided we can always have access to it and could replicate the cognitive process in an exact manner. From your question, the address book in a smartphone can be considered part of our wider memory provided we can always have access to it and hence can be regarded as aiding in our cognition.

Since it is difficult to draw a line between the internal and external cognition processes, generally checking an external source for information seem to imply a loss of memory. It must be noted that memory isn't lost only the memory about the phone numbers is lost since you have created a reliable external cognition source that could look phone numbers for you.

The seminal article, The Extended Mind, by Clark (1998), gives a much better explanation and would open up other avenues for thinking within this context.

Clark, Andy & Chalmers, David J. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis 58 (1):7-19. (HTML)


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