Surprisingly, Smartphone Use May Help Improve Memory

woman sitting on the couch looking at her phone

Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Use of digital devices can free up brain storage to hold additional details.
  • In this way, reliance on the external storage of a smartphone may allow for better functioning as individuals are able to remember more.
  • Technology continues to offer many benefits when utilized well so people can incorporate these findings into their smartphone usage.

The odds are good that you and your loved ones each have your own smartphone. In fact, the Pew Research Center estimates that 97% of Americans own a cellphone, while 85% have a smartphone.

Given the prevalence of smartphones, we often hear warnings about reliance on them. Thankfully, a recently published study in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that using digital devices may support individuals to remember additional information.

Researchers analyzed the results of memory tests conducted with 158 participants, and found that use of the external storage of a digital device can facilitate memory storage of additional details in the brain.

There are always pros and cons, but these findings support smartphone technology as a useful aid to the memory storage of the human brain.

Storage of Information of High & Low Importance

This research included three separate studies to ascertain how use of a digital device may impact memory among 158 volunteers.

Participants were first asked to complete a memory task on a digital device, which allowed them to set reminders for half of the tasks. Most set reminders on the device for the higher value information and relied on their own memory for the lower value information.

Researchers found that volunteers remembered more of the lower value information as reminders on the device facilitated additional storage in their brains, as results showed that individuals were more likely to remember both saved and unsaved information when using reminders.

Unfortunately, a drawback of this approach is that one can lose critical information if the technology were to fail, so that should be taken into consideration when planning how to best utilize smartphone reminders.

Using Technology Strategically

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says, “This study tells us a lot of new things about how some technology can actually improve our memory and overall wellbeing when used correctly." 

Dr. Lagoy explains that the average reader can apply this daily by storing important information on devices so they do not have to remember it.

Especially when technology often comes with warnings, Dr. Lagoy highlights, "This study encourages us to use our devices like smartphones to store very important information, so we have a greater capacity to remember other things that are not as important."

Since a great deal of the research on the topic has been about how technology can be negative, Dr. Lagoy finds these results noteworthy. 

Julian Lagoy, MD

This study encourages us to use our devices like smartphones to store very important information, so we have a greater capacity to remember other things that are not as important.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Dr. Lagoy explains that context is key in the use of technology. "It can be very useful and improve our overall wellbeing when used correctly; however, if used incorrectly, it can do the opposite," he says.

While these research findings are encouraging, Dr. Lagoy notes that a limitation of this research was its reliance on studies done in a laboratory, as it would be more insightful if conducted in the "real world." 

In particular, Dr. Lagoy highlights, "Technology can be great if used correctly, but if misused, it can cause harm. This is what most of the research has been pointing out as was noted in the study."

On a personal note, Dr. Lagoy says, "I use technology to remember passwords to websites and bank accounts. By not having to remember those details, I can put more effort into remembering other more important things in my life that you can’t store on a device."

Prioritizing Certain Tasks May Help

Neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, Clifford Segil, DO, says, "This study notes delayed intentions placed into an external store in the form of a diary or smart phone results in the benefit of an increased chance of remembering this item placed in the list." 

While the term "to-do list" is not used in the research, Dr. Segil notes that is essentially what it is. "It notes separating things to be remembered into high value and low value may help recall each of these items," he says.

It makes sense to Dr. Segil that placing an item in your smart phone will make it more likely you remember this activity, just as placing an item on any written list. "This study indicates that smart phones remind us to do things [and] will make it more likely we do them," he says. 

In terms of the research, Dr. Segil notes that it is interesting that the average age of participants in this study were 24, and participants were between the ages of 18 and 40. "The conclusions of this study therefore do not support patients over the age of 40 having any proven benefit to using a smartphone calendar versus an old fashioned to-do list,” he says.

Clifford Segil, DO

I often advise to-do lists with patients with cognitive and memory issues as they help significantly with the high-value intentions listed before less important low-value intentions.

— Clifford Segil, DO

With this in mind, Dr. Segil is curious about the insights such a study would yield if repeated in patients over 65. "Smartphones help young people, maybe, more than they help older people," he says.

Dr. Segil highlights, "I often advise to-do lists with patients with cognitive and memory issues as they help significantly with the high-value intentions listed before less important low-value intentions."

With cognitive and memory issues, Dr. Segil notes that such ranking of information can be critical. "In our modern world of multi-tasking, it becomes more important as old people age or younger people become more busy to help organize their time and prioritize activities," he says.

Since sticky notes and smartphones serve as cues, Dr. Segil recommends using both, as a sticky note on a door can help, much like a calendar reminder that is loud and annoying. "I have missed more smartphone reminders due to concurrent smartphone distractions so I still rely on to-do lists in my clinical practice and in my home life," he says.  

What This Means For You

These findings support the use of smartphone technology as external storage to "free up space" in your brain's memory. Especially if you struggle to keep up with daily tasks, reliance on a digital device may help. If you already manage to stay organized, use of a smartphone for external storage could further bolster your ability to function.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dupont D, Zhu Q, Gilbert S. Value-based routing of delayed intentions into brain-based versus external memory storesJournal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2022. doi:10.1037/xge0001261

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.