Does digital technology affect cognition?
We live in an age where digital technology is everywhere. The use of cellphones, tablets, and laptops has steadily increased over the past 20 years. This trend has accelerated since mid-2020 for reasons very well known to all of us.
Tradition has it that relying on technology too much impairs our memory, concentration, and self-control. This is true. Technology replacing intellect may not be as feared.
Aside from allegations in the public news, certain scientific studies have been interpreted to imply that digital technology might impair memory, attention, and executive function.
However, a closer examination of these claims reveals two key logical assumptions. The first theory is that this influence has a long-term impact on cognition. The second theory is that digital technology has an immediate and unmoderated influence on cognition. However, actual evidence does not directly support any of these theories.
A close analysis of the evidence shows that the observed benefits were just transient and not long-lasting. Participants were less likely to recall pieces of information when they were informed the material would be saved on a computer and they would have access to it, according to well-known research on people’s dependence on external forms of memory. When they were told the data would not be saved, on the other hand, they recalled it better.
The temptation is to draw the conclusion from this data that utilising technology causes poor memory — a conclusion that the study’s authors did not reach.
People depended on technology when it was accessible, but even when it wasn’t, they were fully capable of remembering. As a result, it would be inappropriate to claim that technology has harmed human memory.
Furthermore, rather than cognitive processes, the impact of digital technology on cognition might be related to motivation. Indeed, cognitive processes take place in the context of objectives for which our motivations might differ.
The more engaging and concentrated a task is, the more engaged and focused we are. Experiments show that cellphones degrade performance on tasks requiring sustained attention, working memory, or functional fluid intelligence.
This factor of motivation is likely to influence research findings, especially when research participants frequently feel that the activities they are required to complete for the study are insignificant or uninteresting.
This indicates that digital technology does not impair cognition; if a task is essential or engaging, people’s ability to complete it will not be harmed.
Internal cognitive processes are less focused on information storage and calculation while using digital technologies. Instead, these procedures transform information into forms that can be put onto digital devices.
This type of cognitive offloading is similar to how individuals write notes on paper instead of committing information to long-term memory, or how youngsters use their hands to aid with counting.
The major difference is that digital technology allows us to unload complicated amounts of data more productively than analogue instruments while maintaining accuracy. One important advantage is that the internal cognitive capacity freed up by not needing to execute specialised activities such as remembering a calendar appointment may now be used for other tasks. This, in turn, means that we can do more intellectually than ever before.
As a result, digitisation does not have to be seen as a competitor to our own cognitive process. Instead, it supports cognition by increasing our capacity to complete tasks.