How to Improve Your Memory

The surprising trick that helps your memory stay strong

a surprising memory booster

Photo by: Oleksiy Maksymenko / Alamy

Gadgets now do a sizeable amount of the memory work we once did ourselves, but whether speed dialing, Google, and GPS are making our brains lazy is still an open question.

Researchers at Columbia University found that participants who were shown information and then told it would be accessible again on their computers did worse on a memory test than those who thought the information was going to be deleted. In another study, participants were told that statements they typed—answers to a trivia quiz—would be saved into one of five folders on a computer. When their recall was later tested, they were better at remembering where they’d stored the information than the actual trivia itself.

The take-away: if you don’t have to remember something, you won’t—but you will remember where you can find it.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Columbia researchers argue that by emptying your brain of things like phone numbers and facts that you can easily look up, you may free up your gray matter for more profound thinking. They point out, too, that people have always relied on sources outside their own brains to store information, like the memory of a friend, family member, or coworker. That might strike a familiar note; if, for instance, your spouse is the one who always drives to your weekend cottage, you aren’t likely to learn how to get there yourself. In the same way, you can now depend on your GPS. “Technology is not necessarily bad for the brain,” says UCLA’s Gary Small, M.D. “But when we overuse it, it becomes unhealthy.”

Dr. Small’s own research, in fact, has shown that Internet searching may actually make you smarter. In a study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, he and his colleagues found that people between the ages of 55 and 76 registered significant activity in areas of the brain responsible for decision-making and comprehension—and more activity than reading elicited—while performing online searches. The benefits were most pronounced in people well-versed in Internet use.