Simply clicking a save button on a computer may improve your memory for the next information you encounter, according to a new study from University of California, Santa Cruz.
This can be explained by the act of saving helping to make available cognitive resources that can be used to remember new information.
According to psychological scientist and study author Benjamin Storm:
Our findings show that people are significantly better at learning and remembering new information when they save previous information. The idea is pretty simple: Saving acts as a form of offloading. By ensuring that certain information will be digitally accessible, we can re-allocate cognitive resources away from maintaining that information and focus instead on remembering new information.”
Earlier research has suggested that saving information on a digital device, such as a computer or camera, hinders later memory for it. Would there be a positive flipside to this saving-induced forgetting, the researchers wondered?
“We tend to think of forgetting as happening when memory fails, but research suggests that forgetting plays an essential role in supporting the adaptive functioning of memory and cognition,” added Storm.
The study involved 20 college students, using computers to open and study pairs of PDF files, File A and File B. Each PDF had a list of 10 common nouns.
The students were given 20 seconds to study File A before closing the file. They then studied File B for 20 seconds and were immediately tested on how many nouns they could remember from the file. Only after this were they tested on their memory for File A.
Importantly, in half of the trials, the students were told to save File A to a particular folder after studying it. In the other half, they were simply told to close the file.
Just as the researchers expected, students remembered more words from File B when they had saved File A than when they had simply closed it. A second study with a separate group of 48 undergrads verified these results.
Costs vs. Benefits of Forgetfulness
The second study also showed, however, that the saving-related memory effects depended on how reliable the students thought the saving process was.
When the students were instructed that the saved version of File A might not stick, that its contents might not actually be accessible, they showed no saving-related memory benefits. That is, when they thought saving was unreliable, students’ memory for File B was the same regardless of whether they saved File A.
“As technology develops, computers and smart phones are making it easier and easier to save information, which seems to have important consequences for the ways in which our memory functions,” said Storm. “By treating computers and other digital devices as extensions of memory, people may be protecting themselves from the costs of forgetting while taking advantage of the benefits.”
The researchers suppose that the memory benefits of saving previous information could potentially have wide implications for how we think more generally.
“Coming up with a new idea or solving a problem often requires that we think outside the box, so to speak, and forgetting previous information allows us to do that,” says Storm. “By helping us to reduce the accessibility of old information, saving may facilitate our ability to think of new ideas and solve difficult problems.”