New Report Debunks Myth That 'Smart' Technology Lowers Our Intelligence

Key Takeaways

  • Most people assume that our ever-increasing use of smart technology is lowering our intelligence.
  • But a new report examined the existing research on the subject and came to a different conclusion.
  • The researchers speculate that, while smart tech allows us to do avoid math calculations and memorization, it actually frees us up for more complex tasks.

Socrates famously insisted that the introduction of writing would be the demise of human memory and the mind itself. This has been a common theme for new technology throughout history, and many people have similar thoughts when it comes to today's smart devices and artificial intelligence, believing that their increased usage is the "dumbing down" of humanity.

By parsing through existing research on this topic, a group of researchers set out to determine the true cognitive impact of these technological developments. While they found that most claims suggest digital technology worsens cognition and public opinion reflecting that notion, says lead researcher Lorenzo Cecutti, their conclusion is quite different.

"If you try to google 'smartphones make us stupid' you can find several articles in support of this statement," Cecutti says. "However, there are several important assumptions that underpin this conclusion... This view seems to miss they ways in which digital technology can improve cognition rather than worsen it."

Lorenzo Cecutti, PhD student

Digital technology is not a competitor of cognition, but complements it. External tools are specialized in performing tasks that free up cognitive capacity. This can be devoted to more complex or important tasks. This change improves, rather than worsen, cognition.

— Lorenzo Cecutti, PhD student

The Research

The report, published in Nature Human Behavior, takes a look at past research on the effects of digital technology innovations on cognition.

"Relying on external tools when they are available is not the same as losing the ability to engage internal processes when necessary," the paper states.

Cecutti says this interpretation hinges on two assumptions, including that the impact is about long-term abilities and cognitive in nature. They conclude that evidence remains lacking for the claims that technology has detrimental long-lasting effects on cognition. "The scientific jury is still out," the paper says.

The researchers argue that these effects of smart technology use are temporary. And while they agree that smart technology is indeed changing our cognitive abilities, they speculate that our internal processes are used less for computation and storage and more for determining how we can offload the information to external tools, reload the info later and manage that back-and-forth of that process.

"Digital technology gives us a choice in terms of how much cognitive capacity we need to use to complete certain tasks, exercising self control should allow us to make good choices and exploit technology in a way that benefits us," Cecutti says.

Lorenzo Cecutti, PhD student

Digital technology gives us a choice in terms of how much cognitive capacity we need to use to complete certain tasks, exercising self control should allow us to make good choices and exploit technology in a way that benefits us.

— Lorenzo Cecutti, PhD student

Smart Use of Smart Tech

When it comes to tasks that don't require critical thinking, like remembering calendar appointments or determining directions, A.I. and our devices act as a sort of assistant and often make our lives easier.

"According to our functionalist perspective, digital technology is not a competitor of cognition, but complements it," Cecutti says. "External tools are specialized in performing tasks that free up cognitive capacity. This can be devoted to more complex or important tasks. This change improves, rather than worsen, cognition."

For those more complex tasks that require creativity and intuition, for example, the paper suggests digital technology may increase humans' efficiency and effectiveness in performing them, while also building computational skills that are rewarded in the job market.

While humans might have more flexibility in how they complete tasks, and a much larger and more easily accessible pool of knowledge to help them along the way, the researchers conclude that people may also be facing an increasing need for self-insights into determining what tasks can be better handled by smart tech, as well as self-control to prevent cognitive laziness.

"The question is what that extra capacity is used for," Cecutti says. "We argue that sometimes it can be used for more critical thinking and creativity, which could benefit cognition. Other times it is used for entertainment. Both are fine, but we need to exercise self control to manage how long and at what times we choose to engage in one or another."

In the end, it's all about how we relate to our devices and technology, says psychologist Michael Alcée, PhD, not the devices and technology, themselves.

"We can mindfully use our phones and social media to jot down creative ideas for a story or project we are working on, engage in a mindful connection with a friend, mindfully observe and record with a photograph, or engage in a mindful appreciation of a podcast," Alcée says. "There are myriad ways to be mindful on our phones, but if we use it as a continuation of our mindlessness then it is very likely to [result in] boredom and fatigue."

What This Means For You

Despite claims that digital technology dumbs us down, using your devices and other forms of smart tech the right way can make life easier and free up time and energy to tackle more complex and creative endeavors.

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  1. Cecutti L, Chemero A, Lee SWS. Technology may change cognition without necessarily harming itNat Hum Behav. Published online July 1, 2021. doi:10.1038/s41562-021-01162-0