A != B

An article on cognitive offloading caught my eye. “Cognitive Offloading: Help or Hindrance?” began with, “Roughly two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) have smartphones…” and I thought: cool! We’ll talk about how our pocket computers facilitate the cognitive offloading we already do!

Nope. The author’s axe shows up quickly: “[A]re all these devices contributing to a weak memory muscle?”

Huh?? Why would you grind that axe?

I’ve been absorbed in reading how much energy our pre-frontal cortex consumes, and how quickly it fatigues. These writings encourage readers to offload as much cognition as possible by establishing routines, writing things down, and otherwise saving those pre-frontal efforts for work high on Bloom’s Taxonomy. (It’s useful; look it up!). In that space, smartphones are great because they can provide quick access for offloading and later downloading the small stuff.

Why would keeping your grocery list in your memory be virtuous?

Further in the article, the writer discusses research exploring how subjects remember or don’t remember museum objects based on whether they photograph them or not. Spoiler alert: somehow, the task of photographing a whole object blurs one’s memory. (Though zooming reduces that effect. Anyway!)

I’m still asking: what does that task have to do with remembering your grocery list instead of writing it down on your phone?

Now that I’m reviewing the article with my fingertips, I better see that my difficulty has a lot to do with a bad case of ‘ does not connect.’ (If only I had taken rhetoric, I’d now know the term for that-!) The researchers (or maybe the writer) have linked taking pictures with cognitive offloading, since they both mean one has less need to remember.

Intuitively, though, I don’t think those ‘not rememberings’ are linked.

I’m not a cognitive researcher, so I don’t have any suggestions on what else it might be. And there’s certainly the option that I am not a representative cognitor. I feel anomalous quite often,

for example, when I read that “mental muscle” comment.

Why? Because you can take my smartphone away, and then take my planner away (another tool for cognitive offloading), and I will not remember any of the things I once stored in those tools any better. How do I know this? Because my school life was an extended test of this, and I failed consistently and thoroughly. I. Do. Not. Remember. Not when I was five. Not when I was twelve. Not when I was eighteen. Not now that I’m 48. Evidently my brain is so thoroughly optimized for cognitive offloading that it doesn’t care whether there’s a receptacle to catch what it drops. It’a just gone.

And–or Plus–I don’t take many photographs. In my teens, as I began to travel on my own, I found that, while I enjoyed having pictures later, taking them very much interrupted my flow during the experience. I feel as if a film comes between me and what’s happening (yeah, it’s metaphor-y, but still the best descriptor). So I collect other people’s pictures and stay present while I’m there. 

Thus I’m on board with Element 2, but not with Element 1. I need a heckuva lot more detail before I agree that the distancing effect of photography is a form of cognitive offloading.

And more urgently — lemme at that writer, so I can take a swing: what do you MEAN ‘weak memory muscle?!” You saying I’m crippled?! 🙂

Comment (1)

  1. Robert

    I have no phone, smart or otherwise, and I still forget things at the grocery store. 🙂


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