• Dillon Murphy

Cognitive Offloading: The Memory Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Technology to Store Limitless In...

Updated: Nov 27, 2020


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Cognitive Offloading: The Memory Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Technology to Store Limitless Information

Anyone who has ever made a grocery list, taken class notes, or used a

calendar to keep track of their daily schedule has engaged in cognitive

offloading: the process of externally recording thoughts and memories to

reduce cognitive demand. Although it may seem intuitive, cognitive offloading

is perhaps one of the most vital techniques employed in human memory.

As frequent learners of massive amounts of information, students may be the

biggest offloaders. During lectures, students often take notes like a court

stenographer, careful to capture every piece of information being presented.

The fallibility of human memory is well established (see Schacter, 1999) and

offloading can be useful in maximizing the storage of information by allowing a

greater amount of information to remain accessible. Additionally, offloading can

be a useful tool to maximize memory utility by reducing the extent to which we

have to attend to offloaded information allowing learners to focus on other to-

be-remembered information (Dror & Harnad, 2008; Risko & Dunn, 2015; Risko

& Gilbert, 2016).

Furthermore, previous work has demonstrated that offloading information

facilitates memory for other information by reducing the extent to which the

offloaded information interferes with target information. For example, Henkel

(2014) led a guided museum tour and had participants take pictures of some

objects but only observe others. On a later memory test, participants better

remembered objects that they observed compared to objects they

photographed (offloaded). Similarly, Storm and Stone (2014) had participants

study lists of words stored in files on a flash drive. Participants then saved

some of the files to their computer (offloaded) and closed other files without

saving. Participants better remembered information from a file if they had

saved a previous file (offloaded) than if they had not saved that previous file.

Thus, if participants expect to have later access to saved information,

offloading obviates the need to encode offloaded information and allows

participants to focus attention on and better remember not-offloaded


Although recent technology has made offloading easy and people have

become symbiotic with their phones and other devices, there are some

drawbacks to offloading. For example, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner (2011) had

participants study trivia questions and led them to believe that the studied

information would be saved (offloaded) or would not be stored for later access

(not offloaded). Participants who thought they would have access to the stored

information later demonstrated worse memory for the trivia questions than

participants who did not rely on technology to store the information. Thus,

offloading can result in poorer memory outcomes if offloaded information

cannot be retrieved later.

Moreover, while offloading can be useful in many situations by reducing the

cognitive cost of remembering less important information, it may still be of

functional benefit to remember certain information. For example, as evidenced

by Sparrow and colleagues (2011), offloading is only a useful tool if the

medium with which information is offloaded is reliable and accessible. If you

are a forgetful person and often lose your notepad or you have an unorganized

desktop and are unable to locate class notes, the information you offloaded

becomes less accessible and is unlikely to be retrieved when needed.

Additionally, class exams usually do not allow access to technology, notes, or

your textbook during the test period, preventing offloading as a memory or

testing strategy.

Although offloading can increase the amount of information that is accessible,

only the information stored in memory is enhanced; memory for information

that is offloaded typically decreases (Risko & Gilbert, 2016). Thus, to maximize cognitive utility, it may be best to prioritize memory for important information

and offload less important information. For example, in Storm and Stone’s

(2014) study involving saving or closing information, they also examined

memory for information when participants were aware and unaware of whether

or not they would have later access to offloaded information. When participants

offloaded information by saving certain files before studying to-be-remembered

files, memory for the to-be-remembered files was enhanced. However, this was

not the case when the saving process was known to be unreliable as

participants are subsequently unable to more strategically allocate attention or

reduce interference from potentially offloaded information. Thus, strategically

offloading is only an effective memory strategy when the mechanism you use

to offload information is reliable.

Thanks to recent technology, offloading information is easier than ever. With

computers and smartphones connected to the internet and capable of

recording and retrieving essentially infinite quantities of information, offloading

has become even more efficient, leading to important changes in the way

humans think and remember (Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, & Fugelsang, 2015).

Although offloading serves many useful functions, we must be careful with how

much and what information we offload as there are situations in which we may

not have access to class notes (i.e., exams), our computers, or our phones

(i.e., dead battery) and need to remember information ourselves.

In sum, when to-be-remembered information is accessible, offloading can

facilitate the encoding and remembering of new information. As such, when

saved information is available indefinitely, there is less need to remember that

information, reducing the extent to which this offloaded information interferes

with the learning of new information. However, simply offloading information is

not sufficient to achieve the memory benefits if the offloading process is

unreliable. Additionally, it may be of functional benefit to remember important

information (i.e., a guardian’s phone number in case of an emergency) rather

than offloading everything. Thanks to modern technology providing essentially

limitless reliable storage and easy access to this information, the benefits of

offloading can be incurred with minimal cognitive costs, allowing massive

amounts of information to be accessible.


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