Overcoming our memory limits with the cognitive offloading: dream or reality?
The human brain is still something unknown and mysterious, and this is one of the reasons why we continue to analyse it.
However, one of its features is glaring: the mind has clear limits, for example in the amount of information it can store and memorise. This is the reason why we tend to delegate these types of functions, to be able to overcome our limitations, make less effort and improve our performance. Delegation can be done in a variety of ways, for example through external media as sticky notes or specific apps or through people who can remind us of information or tasks.
Technology is one of the key points: the ability to access it with great ease and the countless functions of portable devices have transformed the delegation of memory in quantitative and qualitative terms. This phenomenon is called “cognitive offloading” and it consists in the use of one or more tools as an extension of our mind, a kind of delegation of fundamental tasks such as memory, orientation, and attention.
But the real question is: what are the effects of this phenomenon on our brain? The answer is controversial, and nowadays there is still no total clarity on the issue. If we consider prospective memory, that concerns what has to be done in the future, we immediately understand how “fragile” and fallible it is. In fact, this type of memory, responsible to remember a planned event or a future intention, is by its very nature delegated from time to time to external tools such as notes, diaries, smartphones and so on. The benefits are instantaneous and tangible as the risks of forgetfulness and distortions are reduced. The issue related to this delegation is the misuse or the excessive use of these tools when they’re not really needed.
It’s not a coincidence that many scientific studies show how our memory is adapting to these delegation mechanisms. Essentially, the more we use them, the more we will be dependent on them and use them in any situation. The fact that they are so easily accessible fosters this implicit cohesion. For example, if we become accustomed to search for answers in the Web, we will be more inclined to do it even when we don’t actually need to. We will therefore spend less time consulting our mental archive in order to speed up the delegation action. The biggest risk is that we will start trusting less our natural abilities and unsure of our own knowledge.
Another interesting aspect, that can lead to confusion, is the other side of the same coin. Those who delegate a lot lose their long-term memory because they don’t store information in it, but at the same time, by avoiding the effort of memorising a task part of the memory is free to remember other information.
The subject is clearly complex and still unclear. Further scientific research is needed in order to understand better the whole scenario. To date, the abuse of these tools in the long term seems to have more negative than positive effects. The biggest risk is to stop memorising information and become addicted to the internet global archive.
Ultimately, it remains essential to be able to stimulate our minds in order to keep them active and functioning in the best possible way during the course of our life.
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