Technology is a fantastic thing. It represents the progression of the human race. It disseminates information around the world, cuts communication to the touch of a finger no matter where in the world might be. It even allows us to project intangible images onto very tangible environments. What often goes unsaid, however, is how these new technologies and the luxuries afford us affect our physical, mental development. While GPS systems certainly help drivers as they navigate the roads, do they reduce drivers’ capacity to remember how to get where they are going? Does the help that a GPS provide actually hinder, or even reduce, driver’s mental ability to remember how to navigate?
Technology is undeniably helpful in the short-term, but is it harmful in the long-term? A group of researchers is asking that very question and conducting studies to determine the answer. Evan Risko is one such researcher as well as a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Waterloo, and has been cited saying “If you are allowed to store some to-be-remembered information on a computer, chances are you won’t devote cognitive real estate to remembering it. As a result, your ability to remember the information without the computer will likely be reduced.”
Such logic seems reasonable enough, but is it true? The answer—likely, yeah. It is. A paper that was co-authored by University College London neuroscientist Sam Gilbert and Risko reviewed this idea, hereon referred to as ‘cognitive offloading’ (using the outside world, like technology, to reserve brainpower). One study in this regard had to do with sat-nav use:
It found that although GPS systems aided drivers into getting to their desired destination, it also negatively affected their memory. They could recall less about what they had seen along the way than those who used no such GPS device. Just as well, they clearly struggled to retrace their route, a problem that was nearly nonexistent in those who made their way without any sat-nav technology.
Another interesting study on the concept of cognitive offloading had to do with the use of digital cameras. Essentially, there were two groups of visitors to a museum. Each individual in one group was given a digital camera and instructed to take pictures of the various exhibits. The other group, as you can probably guess, was not given a camera. After having explored the museum, each group was asked a series of questions. In their responses, it was clear that the group without the camera had a significantly better memory of what they had and had not seen in the museum while those with the camera had a less comprehensive recall of the exhibits they had photographed.
Yet another study implies that individuals who use search engines on a regular basis seem to have an inflated sense of understanding, leading them to think they know more than they actually do. Even when questioned on completely unrelated topics, they still claimed they had a greater understanding than others.
It seems that the more comfortable mankind becomes with technology, the more reliant upon it we become, which only makes sense. Yet, this comfort then leads to a mental complacency that in no way benefits us. First and foremost, technology is a tool to be used to supplement our cognitive capacity, not to replace it. We must remember to think, because it is thinking and innovation that will propel technology, and thus humanity, even further.