In his book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer says our phone has become “an extension of our memory.” And he’s right. It doesn’t take long for smartphone users to grow dependent on their device for a variety of information. Let’s start with phone numbers. Stop and think for a minute – how many phone numbers can you remember right now? Besides my own, I count seven. My wife, my dad, my boss, my office lines, and an old family number I still use to collect grocery rewards. Oh, and I also remember a 7-digit number my family had in the late 1990s, before area codes became ubiquitous. How about birthdays? I can think of a dozen, ever since Facebook so kindly took over the task of remembering birthdays for me.
What else do we choose not to remember any more? Beyond basic contact info, we’re now entrusting our smartphone with a whole array of personal information, including to do lists, calendars, exercise logs, wishlists, and bank and accounts info. And then there’s the photos. So many photos! And some smartphones even organize them for you into memories. We are also asking our phones to remind us to do things like pick up milk, call someone back, or complete our daily habit check. And how about passwords? I’ve got them listed in a password-protected Word doc right now, but I’ve been tempted to start using one of those master password apps and letting them (and my smartphone) do all the hard work. Keeping track of all those passwords is a pesky business, which is why some smartphones now let you use your fingerprint or a scan of your face. While this technology is convenient and certainly reduces the risk of unauthorized use, it gets eerily closer to the union of man and machine and to what the Book of Revelation in the Bible calls the mark of the beast: “no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name’” (Rev. 13:17).
Ok, so what Andrew? We’ve gotten rid of our paper address books and freed up our memory banks for more important stuff. What’s so bad about that? Well, what are we doing to our brains by outsourcing all that info to a machine? While it might be efficient in the short-term, what are the long-term effects? Although the human brain is an organ, it functions like a muscle because it grows and changes constantly. And like any muscle, it can deteriorate over time if it doesn’t get stimulated regularly. “Long established work in the field proves that using your memory and continuously challenging your cognition is by far the biggest positive contributor for a healthy memory in age,” says Dr. Boris Konrad, a neuroscientist and Guinness Book record holder for memorization feats.
Is it possible we can erode our brains by letting our smartphones do all the remembering for us? Cognitive decline is considered a continuum by experts, so separating the normal effects of aging on the brain from more unusual decline like MCI (mild cognitive impairment) and dementia can be tricky. But the research definitely suggests that how we use or don’t use our brains can make them age faster than the rest of our body. And let’s not forget that we are the first generation of humans in history to age in the Age of the Smartphone. Although early iterations of a smartphone combining mobile phone and personal digital assistant technologies came out in the 1990s, the smartphone era began in earnest when Apple released the iPhone in 2007. This means we have yet to fully realize the effects of the smartphone on our aging brains.
So what to do? Well, start by putting a cap on how much you let your smartphone remember for you. Don’t give in to the temptation to let your device send you countless reminders and alerts. Put a little more trust in that amazing supercomputer between your ears. Write a list of the contact info you want to commit to memory, and then practice it over time until it’s there. For other stuff, use mnemonics, the method of recalling things using association, like Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines on a treble clef in music.
To further reduce your smartphone dependence, write things by hand! Take notes and keep to do lists and journals on paper, written in your one-of-a-kind handwriting. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that writing notes by hand is much better for long-term memory and understanding of conceptual information, like ideas and frameworks. Plus, we tend to write slower than we can type, and this reduction in speed can help us process or reflect on what we are writing, which further solidifies the information in our brains.
In short, just use your smartphone less. The longer you spend on it, the longer you’ll spend on it. Don’t let your common sense take a back seat to the lure of convenience and the ideal of optimal productivity. Remember who’s in charge here.
Now, what is your best friend’s phone number, address, and birthday?
This post was also published at The Christian Post.