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Keeping notes in your smartphone? One day you might have fake memories

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Posted August 4, 2019

How often do you leave notes for yourself on your phone? Most people do it almost every day. It is very convenient – we write something down and our phones remind us about it whenever we set them to. But how this habit affects your memory? Scientists from the University of Waterloo say that it exposes our memories to manipulation.

Being forgetful is not cool, but tempering with your notes could actually change your memories. Image credit: Royonx via Wikimedia)

Scientists have been saying for a long time that notes do not actually help our memory. In fact, our long-term memory is not as good as it would be if we tried actually memorizing more information. You don’t use it, you lose it – that the simple reality. However, what we didn’t know was that our memories could be manipulated through our notes.

Researchers asked participants to perform a series of memory tasks. They involved using a file on a computer to store and later recall a list of words. This accurately represents how we use phones and computers to store notes. At first scientists didn’t touch those lists, but after three trials they started tempering with them.

Scientists carefully added a word to the file right before the information was retrieved. The goal was to see if participants will notice a word that wasn’t there to begin with. Not only participants did not notice that someone was tinkering with the file, they were highly confident that the fail maintained its original content. But it gets even worse.

In a later test many participants reported remembering being presented with that word that was added only later. In other words, people believed that the word that was added later was actually one of the original ones. They remembered hearing the word that was actually never presented. This shows how manipulation of the notes created a fake memory and that’s a big problem.

Evan Risko, lead author of the study, said: “The opportunity to supplement our memory by offloading to more stable external stores has many benefits, but, at the same time, we need to have our eyes open to potential risks associated with this form of remembering. Understanding these risks will help us reap the most value from our distributed memory systems”.

Of course, you are not going to stop making notes for yourself. And you shouldn’t. It’s a great way to prevent yourself from forgetting something important. However, you should be concerned about the security of this data too. You know you need to protect your passwords and internet bank data, but this is also personal information not meant for other people viewing.

Also, if notes are very important, have a couple of copies in other places – one in email, one inside of the smartphone and maybe even a physical copy. That is just a couple of ways of reducing the chances of having someone manipulate with your memories.

 

Source: University of Waterloo

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