Cognitive Offloading: The Memory Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Technology to Store Limitless Information

Anyone who has ever made a grocery list, taken class notes, or used a calendar to keep track of their daily schedule has engaged in cognitive offloading: the process of externally recording thoughts and memories to reduce cognitive demand. Although it may seem intuitive, cognitive offloading is perhaps one of the most vital techniques employed in human memory. 

As frequent learners of massive amounts of information, students may be the biggest offloaders. During lectures, students often take notes like a court stenographer, careful to capture every piece of information being presented. The fallibility of human memory is well established (see Schacter, 1999) and offloading can be useful in maximizing the storage of information by allowing a greater amount of information to remain accessible. Additionally, offloading can be a useful tool to maximize memory utility by reducing the extent to which we have to attend to offloaded information allowing learners to focus on other to-be-remembered information (Dror & Harnad, 2008; Risko & Dunn, 2015; Risko & Gilbert, 2016).

Furthermore, previous work has demonstrated that offloading information facilitates memory for other information by reducing the extent to which the offloaded information interferes with target information. For example, Henkel (2014) led a guided museum tour and had participants take pictures of some objects but only observe others. On a later memory test, participants better remembered objects that they observed compared to objects they photographed (offloaded). Similarly, Storm and Stone (2014) had participants study lists of words stored in files on a flash drive. Participants then saved some of the files to their computer (offloaded) and closed other files without saving. Participants better remembered information from a file if they had saved a previous file (offloaded) than if they had not saved that previous file. Thus, if participants expect to have later access to saved information, offloading obviates the need to encode offloaded information and allows participants to focus attention on and better remember not-offloaded information.

Although recent technology has made offloading easy and people have become symbiotic with their phones and other devices, there are some drawbacks to offloading. For example, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner (2011) had participants study trivia questions and led them to believe that the studied information would be saved (offloaded) or would not be stored for later access (not offloaded). Participants who thought they would have access to the stored information later demonstrated worse memory for the trivia questions than participants who did not rely on technology to store the information. Thus, offloading can result in poorer memory outcomes if offloaded information cannot be retrieved later.

Moreover, while offloading can be useful in many situations by reducing the cognitive cost of remembering less important information, it may still be of functional benefit to remember certain information. For example, as evidenced by Sparrow and colleagues (2011), offloading is only a useful tool if the medium with which information is offloaded is reliable and accessible. If you are a forgetful person and often lose your notepad or you have an unorganized desktop and are unable to locate class notes, the information you offloaded becomes less accessible and is unlikely to be retrieved when needed. Additionally, class exams usually do not allow access to technology, notes, or your textbook during the test period, preventing offloading as a memory or testing strategy.

Although offloading can increase the amount of information that is accessible, only the information stored in memory is enhanced; memory for information that is offloaded typically decreases (Risko & Gilbert, 2016). Thus, to maximize cognitive utility, it may be best to prioritize memory for important information and offload less important information. For example, in Storm and Stone’s (2014) study involving saving or closing information, they also examined memory for information when participants were aware and unaware of whether or not they would have later access to offloaded information. When participants offloaded information by saving certain files before studying to-be-remembered files, memory for the to-be-remembered files was enhanced. However, this was not the case when the saving process was known to be unreliable as participants are subsequently unable to more strategically allocate attention or reduce interference from potentially offloaded information. Thus, strategically offloading is only an effective memory strategy when the mechanism you use to offload information is reliable.

Thanks to recent technology, offloading information is easier than ever. With computers and smartphones connected to the internet and capable of recording and retrieving essentially infinite quantities of information, offloading has become even more efficient, leading to important changes in the way humans think and remember (Barr, Pennycook, Stolz, & Fugelsang, 2015). Although offloading serves many useful functions, we must be careful with how much and what information we offload as there are situations in which we may not have access to class notes (i.e., exams), our computers, or our phones (i.e., dead battery) and need to remember information ourselves.

In sum, when to-be-remembered information is accessible, offloading can facilitate the encoding and remembering of new information. As such, when saved information is available indefinitely, there is less need to remember that information, reducing the extent to which this offloaded information interferes with the learning of new information. However, simply offloading information is not sufficient to achieve the memory benefits if the offloading process is unreliable. Additionally, it may be of functional benefit to remember important information (i.e., a guardian’s phone number in case of an emergency) rather than offloading everything. Thanks to modern technology providing essentially limitless reliable storage and easy access to this information, the benefits of offloading can be incurred with minimal cognitive costs, allowing massive amounts of information to be accessible.



Barr, N., Pennycook, G., Stolz, J. A., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking. Computers in Human Behavior, 48, 473-480.

Dror, I. E., & Harnad, S. (2008). Offloading cognition onto cognitive technology. In I. E. Dror & S. Harnad (Eds.), Cognition distributed: How cognitive technology extends our minds (pp. 1–23). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25, 396-402.

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Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. American Psychologist, 54, 182-203.

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Storm, B. C., & Stone, S. M. (2014). Saving-enhanced memory: The benefits of saving on the learning and remembering of new information. Psychological Science, 26, 182-188.