This is Your Brain on Cognitive Offloading

We begin to understand how easy access to information reshapes how we think.

by Philip Parry BigThink  to O Society

Do you remember what a struggle it was to remember the name of a certain actress, the kind of car you drove a decade ago, or what year a historical event took place?

Fortunately, with the internet, the answers are right at your fingertips, at all times.

Though the ease of acquiring information in the modern world improves our lives in so many ways, it also changes how our brain works and processes information. Some wonder when taken altogether, whether the results are better or worse for us.


A study published in the journal Memory looks into the process of “cognitive offloading,” or relying on Google, GPS, and other external devices for what we used to use our memories for. It considers the impact on learning and problem solving as well.

This collaborative effort among researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. They wanted to determine how likely it was for a group of participants to reach for their smartphone when asked a series of questions. First, participants were split into two groups. Each was given a number of trivia questions. One group was able to use Google while the other had to rely on memory alone. In the second phase, simpler questions were posed, and both groups were allowed to use their phones if they wished.

Those allowed to Google answers initially were more likely to rely on the search engine to answer subsequent questions, even if they were easier. In contrast, those who relied on their memory were more likely to think about second phase questions before reaching for their smartphone. Memory reliant participants were also quicker at answering trivia questions overall. Another find, those who used the internet did not attempt to answer one question from memory, even a simple one. Benjamin Storm was the lead author on this study. According to him, the results were clear. “As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”

The internet may be shortening our attention spans and memory, impacting education and learning.

The term cognitive offloading was developed by Canadian researcher Evan F. Risko and his British colleague Sam Gilbert. According to them, this is a process that has been going on for centuries or more. For instance, for decades now we’ve been using calculators to do our finances, and writing down important dates in a calendar. But no technology has altered how we think quite like the internet. So this begs the question, what might this be doing to our brains?

Through their studies, Risko and Gilbert found that people will use technology when they believe it is superior to their own capabilities. Though we may believe offloading hurts our memory, people do need these devices because we are “capacity limited.” So such devices allow us to “subvert our cognitive limits,” according to researchers.

Even so, there are disadvantages. One worrisome one, cognitive offloading may be making our life experiences less vivid in our memories. Consider this. One study allowed visitors to a museum to take pictures of certain exhibits using digital cameras. Researchers discovered that being able to take photos of what they saw made subjects less likely to remember the details about them. They were much better at remembering objects which weren’t photographed over those that were.

Our devices can cause us to miss the depth and breadth of some of life’s best experiences. (Students in the Eiffel Tower)

We know computers are rewiring our brains. One study using brain imaging technology showed that receiving reminders for an event actually changed activity inside the brain. Though cognitive changes are occurring, most of us aren’t aware of them.

That’s not the case for Atlantic writer Nicholas Carr. He says he notices it when reading. Carr’s writes about this in his article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” which was developed into a book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Bradley Cooper + Lady Gaga = The Shallows

Carr does credit the internet for making research that used to take days available in mere minutes. But what we get comes at a cost. Carr believes focus and deep contemplation are what we are giving up. Furthermore, we may be better at multitasking, but creativity could be suffering.

Several other writers mention in the piece say that they used to be voracious book readers, yet cannot seem to focus and follow along anymore, preferring to do all of their reading online instead. Today, people may be reading more than decades ago. But according to Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, we read differently. We skim, wanting immediate information but missing deeper context, varying interpretations, and some of the richer portions of the reading experience.

Ever focused on technology, we sometimes miss an opportunity for deeper contemplation.

Though the brain is ever malleable and able to rewire itself to any situation, almost instantly, it will take some time before neurologists know exactly how the internet has altered the brain’s makeup and what it might mean for cognition. We haven’t even mapped the entire organ, yet. So deeper understanding will take time. Still, there are a lot of indicators to how the ubiquity of the internet is changing how we think.

Of course, people have been calling new, disruptive media technologies the downfall of civilization since the invention of the printing press in the 15thcentury. If anything, it spread learning and made the world far more sophisticated. What we need to find out is where technology improves our experiences and where it doesn’t. Having a more intimate understanding of this will allow us to find the best places to use technology, such as remembering mundane facts and figures, while barring it in certain areas, such as museums, so that people can get the most out of life’s finer experiences.

Click here to learn more about cognitive offloading in the primary literature or:

Cognitive Offloading as PDFinTrends in Cognitive Sciences


4 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Cognitive Offloading

  1. If you read Lynne Kelly’s work on mnemonic traditions, you’l realize how much cognitive offloading books have done for us these past millennia. Literacy transformed humanity to a greater extent than the internet likely ever could. With written texts, memory capacity plummeted and has never recovered.

    Humans used to be able to memorize their entire world in detail and everything was named, down to the tiniest insect and bend in the river — the equivalent of thousands of pages of knowledge accumulated over vast time. Some indigenous people have accurately maintained knowledge of how the world looked prior to the end of the last ice age.

    Julian Jaynes argues that writing might be what destroyed the earlier mentality of the Bronze Age. In its place, what formed was a new consciousness built on individuality and the Axial Age followed from that. It was a revolution of the mind. An entire way of being in the world was lost to humanity, even though it had been the basis of civilization probably for millennia. But the mentality that replaced it made all of modernity possible, including museums.

    There is pretty much nothing you can say about the internet right now that hasn’t already been said thousands of times before about every technology that came before, going back to Socrates’ complaints about writing and probably further back than that. That isn’t to dismiss those complaints. Technology really does fundamentally alter humanity, again and again and again. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. And yes, there are always trade-offs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can also speak from a personal perspective.

    I was diagnosed with a learning disorder when I was a child. It had to do with word recall and delayed my learning to read. I basically had a hard time bringing names and facts to mind, sometimes even the names of my friends. I knew the info, but I couldn’t always recall it. A special education teacher taught me skills in learning a large vocabulary so that I could use a different word when the word I was thinking of wouldn’t come to mind. As a child, I was also a subject in some early research on this condition. Going by what I know today, I suspect there was some mild autism involved and maybe what is now referred to as specific language impairment.

    There is a reason I bring this up. Back in the early 1990s when I was in high school, I knew of the internet because my father was a professor. But it wasn’t something I used. Computers back then were just fancy typewriters, as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I got my own computer and internet connection.

    It was a revelation for me. Not merely because of the access to knowledge, but more importantly how the internet was structured. The internet is a series of connections within connections. That is how my brain works. I only remember things and can think about them through connections. The internet was the first time I experienced something that worked like my brain and I could feel my brain reorganizing itself to deal with this non-linear medium, after having spent my life up to that point forcing my mind to conform to linear texts. The non-linear, by the way, is a return to oral styles of communication — the world experienced and remembered as networks.

    The internet actually improved my memory recall a thousandfold. It gave me new info that I lacked before. But it also reinforced my ability to make connections, which for me is how my memory works. It was a Godsend. That isn’t to say all of it is positive. I’m easily distracted, moreso than the average person. My mind naturally goes off in multiple directions at once. And I’ve learned to avoid social media as it is a void out of which my mind can’t escape. It’s a tool that we have to learn to use wisely.

    It will no doubt leave us permanently changed and those who grow up with internet won’t remember the mentality that came before any more than those who grew up with books have any familiarity with the vast mnemonic systems of traditional societies.


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