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By Martha C. White
December 16, 2014

To learn better, hit control-s and “outsource” your remembering.

In a new study, scientists found that people tackling a mental challenge on a computer did a better job if they saved the previous work they had been doing beforehand.

“Saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file,” the authors write. “Saving has the potential to significantly influence how people learn and remember.”

In a series of experiments, participants were instructed to study two PDF files and remember words it contained. Subjects did a better job remembering material from the second file if they successfully saved the first file before proceeding onto the second one.

“Saving allows us to maintain access to more data and experiences than would be possible otherwise,” says says Benjamin Storm, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author of the study. “Memory now works in concert with technology, and by saving information we are able to keep that information from interfering with the learning of something new.”

The act of saving something digitally gives us a sense of reassurance that the information is there when we need it, which psychologically frees up our mind and allows us to focus on the next batch of information we need to learn. Essentially, we’re reallocating our mental resources.

“To maximize memory and productivity we need to be able to set stuff aside and move on to other matters,” Storm says.

In earlier research, he found that thinking of new things makes it harder to remember old thoughts. If you’re worrying if or when you’ll need to refer to earlier information in the future, hitting the “save” button or shortcut is a quick, easy and low-risk way way to virtually hang onto that information without forcing it to occupy the forefront of your mind.

“Saving may protect us from this type of thinking-induced forgetting by allowing us to think of new ideas while keeping our old ideas safely saved and out of the way,” Storm says.

Storm points out that his experiments just looked at what happens when someone saves a file before closing it and starting a new task, but he says it’s not a bad idea to save your work on a regular basis anyway.

When new information crowds out older thoughts, people can even forget their own ideas, Storm says. “Save or write down good ideas as soon as you get them,” he advises. “Even if you think you’re going to remember them, chances are that you won’t, especially if you continue to try to think of new ideas.”

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