Calculators. Cognitive scientists long ago identified the “generation effect” — the fact that we understand and remember answers that we generate ourselves better than those that are provided us (by a calculator, for instance). But a study published last year in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that adults who tried to solve arithmetic problems on their own but then obtained the answer from a calculator did just as well on a later test as those who didn’t use calculators at all. If you don’t have a QAMA calculator [which won’t give you the answer until you provide an accurate estimate of what that answer will be], you can approximate its effects by holding off using a traditional calculator until you’ve tried to come up with a solution yourself.
Auto-complete. Frequent users of smartphones quickly get used to the “auto-complete” function of their devices—the way they need only type a few letters and the phone fills in the rest. Maybe too used to it, in fact. This handy function seems to make adolescent users faster, but less accurate, when responding to a battery of cognitive tests, according to research published in 2009 in the journal Bioelectromagnetics.
Texting. A study led by researchers at the University of Coventry in Britain surveyed a group of eight- to twelve-year-olds about their texting habits, then asked them to write a sample text in the lab. The scientists found that kids who sent three or more text messages a day had significantly lower scores on literacy tests than children who sent none. But those children who, when asked to write a text message, showed greater use of text abbreviations (like “c u l8r” for “see you later”) tended to score higher on a measure of verbal reasoning ability—likely because the condensed language of texting requires an awareness of how sounds relate to written English.
Search engines. The ready availability of search engines is changing the way we use our memories, reported psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University in a study published in Science last year. When people expect to have future access to information, Sparrow wrote, “they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” It’s good to know where to find the information you need—but decades of cognitive science research shows that skills like critical thinking and problem-solving can be developed only in the context of factual knowledge. In other words, you’ve got to have knowledge stored in your head, not just in your computer.
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