Technology & Memory

In the olden days, before the invention of the printing press, legends, stories, and religious lessons had to be memorized, passed down from generation to generation through a tradition of oral recitation.  Chanting was one method for committing long stories to memory, ensuring the wisdom of the past would be carried on to future generations. After the widespread adoption of printing, of course, it no longer became necessary for scholars, priests or monks to memorize long passages - one could simply publish these in a book.  The ancient skill of memorizing hundreds of lines of verse was no longer needed.  In the past generation, the rise of the internet has had no less a profound impact on memory - what we choose to remember, and forget.  

Think Critically

To begin thinking about the role of technology in memory, consider the following:

  • You want to find out which country won the most World Cups in football.  If you didn't already know this, how would you find the answer?  How long would it take?  How would someone have found the answer 30 years ago?

  • Many television quiz shows, such as "Jeopardy", test general knowledge of historical and cultural events - like how long the Korean war lasted, or which film won the Academy Award in the year 2000.  Having a vast store of general knowledge is often considered a sign of an intelligent and cultured person.  However, in the age of Google, when all of this information can be found online in just a few seconds, is general knowledge of any value?  Why or why not?
Theory of cognitive offloading

When you go grocery shopping, do you memorize all of the items you need to purchase, or simply make a list?  If you rely on your memory, you need to exert a fair bit of cognitive effort to remember everything you need to buy.  Perhaps you rehearse the items in your mind, or imagine the meals you will cook with your chosen ingredients.  If you make a grocery list, however, you don't really need to bother memorizing the list, and your cognitive resources are freed up to think about other things.  As soon as you have made your list, you will probably forget much of what you just wrote down, trusting that you can rely on your grocery list instead of your memory.  In doing so, you have "offloaded" the cognitive effort from your brain onto your grocery list, easing the amount of work your brain needs to do.

Researchers have argued that mobile phones and computers are encouraging us to offload many cognitive functions onto technology, reducing our need to think, process, and remember.  The use of Google Maps is one example of this.  Before navigation technology, you would have to spend a good deal of cognitive effort to navigate an unfamiliar city that you visit on a holiday.  You would have to remember street names, notice landmarks, and maintain your sense of direction as you explore.  With the use of Google Maps, however, we are relieved of the cognitive effort needed to find our way around a new place, trusting in Google for directions to a tourist attraction or the way back to our hotel. 

Cognitive offloading can be seen as beneficial, because it frees up our cognitive resources to focus on other things - much like a CEO offloading menial tasks onto a secretary.  On the other hand, cognitive offloading can be seen as a form of mental laziness, as constantly relying on technology might give our brains an excuse for not doing much mental work at all.
Research: Sparrow et al

Aim:  Investigate how technology can lead to cognitive offloading of factual information

  • Participants were asked to type 40 trivia facts into a computer (ex. An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain)

  • Participants were randomly assigned to two groups - in one group, participants were told that the computer would store everything they typed for future reference, while in the other group, participants were told that the information would be erased

  • Furthermore, within each group, participants were randomly divided into two subgroups - half were explicitly told to remember the facts, while the other half were not told to remember. 

  • Thus, there were four groups in total - 1. Computer will save & asked to remember, 2. Computer will save & not asked to remember, 3. Computer will erase & asked to remember, 4. Computer will erase & not asked to remember


  • Participants told that the computer would erase the information remembered significantly more of the facts (around 30%) than participants told that the computer would store the information (around 20%)

  • Interestingly, asking the participants to remember the facts had no effect on their memory


  • When people expect that information will be stored electronically, they make less effort to remember it - essentially offloading the memory onto the computer

  • Even when participants are asked to remember something, they won't bother memorizing the information if they know it will be electronically stored (perhaps thinking, "why should I bother memorizing this, if I can just look it up on the computer later?")


  • This study supports the theory of cognitive offloading, demonstrating how technology allows people to "offload" cognitive tasks

  • The study was a well controlled laboratory experiment, demonstrating a causal relationship between the independent variable (whether participants expect the computer will store the information) and the dependent variable (rate of recall)

  • Because this experiment took place in a laboratory, it may have had demand characteristics.  Participants might have guessed what the experiment was about, and deliberately put in less effort to "go along" with the aim of the study

Memory & Photography

As you have already learned, our memories are far from perfect.  The details of our experiences fade over time, and memories from our past often become distorted or forgotten.  Taking a photograph seems to capture a moment forever, and so it is no surprise that most people take lots of photographs during holidays, birthdays, weddings, and other special occasions.  But what if people become so preoccupied with taking photos that they don't really pay attention to what's happening in the moment?  Could taking photos actually make our memory worse?  Psychologist Dr. Henkel refers to a photo-taking impairment effect, describing how "people so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them".  This echoes the idea of cognitive offloading - if you expect that you will be able to look at photos of an event later, your brain might not bother really trying to process and remember all of the details of the experience as it unfolds.

Not all psychologists necessarily agree with Dr. Henkel, however.  Another psychologist by the name of Kristen Diehl believes that taking photographs might enhance memory, rather than impairing it.  She argues that we often take photos to capture interesting or meaningful moments, like a beautiful sunset on a beach, or the first kiss at a wedding.  In order to take a photo that best captures the moment,  we may pay more attention to the visual details of the event, and hence remember them better later on.  For instance, while taking a photograph of a sunset, you might pay more attention to the texture of the clouds and the different hues of red and orange in the sky as you look through your camera's lens, and hence end up remembering the sunset in more detail.  So, perhaps taking photographs could actually enhance memory, rather than impairing it. 

What does the research evidence have to say?  Does taking photos impair or enhance memory? Although this debate is far more settled, an interesting study carried out by Dr. Henkel has explored the effects of photography on memory.  Watch the video below, making notes on the arguments for and against the existence of a photo-taking impairment effect, and then read a summary of the study.

Research: Henkell

Aim: Investigate how taking photographs affects memory


  • University students who were on a guided tour of an art museum were instructed to simply observe 15 objects, and to photograph 15 other objects

  • In a second variation of the experiment, participants were told to "zoom in" to focus on interesting details as they photographed the 15 objects

  • The next day, participants were tested on whether they remembered the objects and specific details of the objects


  • Participants who took photographs of objects as a whole had reduced memory of those objects compared to the objects they simply observed

  • However, participants who were asked to "zoom in" and focus on interesting details remembered those objects well.  They even remembered the details of the object that they didn't "zoom in" on


  • This study suggests that how we take photographs determines the effect on memory.  When participants simply took a photo of the object as a whole, they did not remember it well.  This supports the theory of cognitive offloading - perhaps taking a photo triggered participants to forget the object, since it has already been "saved" in the photo

  • However, participants who "zoomed in" to capture specific details remembered the objects well.  This finding suggests that taking photos can enhance memory when participants engage additional cognitive processes (thinking and paying attention to the object) as they take photos


  • This study has a within-subject experimental design, allowing for a cause-and-effect relationship to be established between the independent variable (taking a photo vs. simply observing) and the dependent variable (memory of the object)

  • The study took place in a natural environment, an art museum, so ecological validity is high

  • However, the study only involved university students, who may not represent the entire population.  So, generalizability of these findings may be low
TOK Link

One of the prescribed TOK essay titles for November 2018 is as follows:

“Technology provides ever-expanding access to shared knowledge. Therefore, the need to assimilate such knowledge personally is relentlessly diminishing.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Make a list of reasons why "for" and "against" the need to personally assimilate knowledge.  You might want to consider the following:

  • The reliability of our memory

  • How prior knowledge shapes how we perceive and understand events (ex. schemas)

  • The theory of cognitive offloading


  • ​I can explain the theory of cognitive offloading

  • I can summarize the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of research by Sparrow into cognitive offloading, and I can evaluate the study

  • I can discuss the effects of photography on memory, including reasons why photography may impair memory (the "photo-taking impairment effect") or possibly even enhance it

  • I can summarize the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of research by Henkell into the effects of photography on memory, and I can evaluate the study
Quiz Yourself!

1.  Which of the following is not an example of cognitive offloading?

(a) Using Trip Advisor to find new restaurants in your neighborhood

(b) Storing phone numbers in your list of contacts on your mobile phone

(c) Taking a photograph of where you last parked your car

(d) Recording due dates of homework assignments on your digital calendar

2.  Which statement best summarizes the research by Sparrow et al?

(a) Participants will put more effort into remembering facts if they are asked to do so

(b) Participants recognize that technology is not a reliable mechanism for storing facts

(c) Participants will put less effort into remembering facts that are saved on a computer

(d) Participants will put less effort into remembering facts that will be deleted anyways

3.  A possible criticism of the study by Sparrow et al is the influence of demand characteristics.  What does this mean?

(a) Participants did not freely choose to participate in the study

(b) The study placed unnecessary demands on participants, causing lack of ecological validity

(c) The sample in the study did not fairly represent the general population

(d) Participants might have guessed the aim of the study and behaved accordingly

4.  You enjoy taking photos while travelling, but also want to remember as much of your trip as possible.  Based on the research by Henkell, what advice should you follow?

(a) Try taking photos from different angles to capture the best shot 

(b) Take lots of photos, and then delete all but the best ones

(c) Take a quick photo, but then put your camera away and focus on the moment

(d) Experiment with different filters to make your photos look their best

5.  What sentence best describes the "photo taking impairment effect"?

(a) People only remember the moments that are photographed, forgetting the rest

(b) People put less effort into remembering a moment when they can take a photo of it

(c) People tend to photograph key moments of their lives, like holidays and celebrations

(d) A photograph is never an adequate substitute for the actual experience

1 - A, 2 - C, 3 - D, 4 - A, 5 - B