Do you feel embarrassed because you use such memory aids as sticky notes, calendars, shopping lists, designated places for personal items, or other shortcuts to help you remember? If so, don’t feel bad. Some recent research suggests that saving key information in specific ways can be a good idea. Not only do reminder notes, computer files, and other means of information storage make information available for later access, they also can apparently lighten cognitive load and make it easier to remember new information.
Recent experiments tested the hypothesis that saving information is a form of off-loading cognitive workload that frees the brain to be more effective at attending and remembering new information. These experiments by a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were inspired by prior work of others revealing that information was not remembered as well if it were saved as a computer file, presumably because participants knew they could look it up later. This finding was subsequently confirmed in other ways. This is the effect of “Memory in the Age of Google,” the title of a keynote address I gave to 1,300 teachers at a conference.
But one question not addressed in the prior work was the possibility of an effect on future learning. Now a principle of proactive inhibition of memory formation has been identified in which new learning can be impaired by immediately prior conditions. Could off-loading of previously acquired information affect proactive inhibition? Saving a copy of information might reduce such inhibition by lowering the brain’s workload as it encounters new information to be remembered. Indeed, several groups had established that telling participants they don’t have to remember a list of items enhanced the memory for a second list of items. Thus, it seemed plausible to suggest that saving a list of items, as for example in a computer file, might make it easier to memorize a second list because the learner knows the saved original information can be accessed later.
The test of this idea involved 20 college students who took six trials, each involving study and testing of the contents of two PDF computer files, labeled A and B. For example, they first studied file A, but before being tested on it, they would study and be tested on file B. On half of the trials, participants saved file A after studying it, and the other half were no-save trials in which file A was exited without saving before study and testing on file B. The amount of recall on testing of file B was significantly greater on trials when file A had been saved. This was confirmed in a subsequent trial in which half of the save trials were conducted when participants were told the save procedure was not reliable and that the information in file A could be lost. As long as they trusted that file A was reliably saved, they remembered more from file B.
It seems likely that this principle could apply to other contexts, and thus there might be practical applications. By using a variety of memory saving aids (sticky notes, calendars, etc.), people gain some protection from proactive interference for new learning. And, of course, the earlier saved information is still accessible to be memorized as needed. This may well be the major advantage of taking good lecture notes, for as the learner is off-loading information as it is being saved in the notes, some of the new learning (which is also being saved in the notes) might actually become memory during the note-taking process.
Another obvious benefit is the reduction of anxiety over a concern that you might forget. You know the information is safely stored, so the brain is free to take on new learning without a degree of proactive interference that anxiety always produces. You probably can think better too, as the mind has very limited capacity to hold information in conscious working memory, which holds the information that you think with.
Dr. Klemm is author of Memory Power 101 (Skyhorse), Better Grades, Less Effort (Benecton), and Mental Biology (Prometheus).
Sparrow, B. Liu, J., and Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory. Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 333, 776-778.
Storm, B. C., and Stone, S. M. (2014). Saving-enhanced memory: The benefits of saving on the learning and remembering of new information. Psychological Science. Doi: 10.1177/0956797614559285.Remember, to get a full understanding of this post, you need the book, Thank You Brain for All You Remember.