Is Technology Destroying Our Memory?

Is Technology Destroying Our Memory?

Brain waves
Brain waves

Without looking at your phone, how many numbers do you know by heart? What about your calendar commitments a week from now? Off-loading these bits of information to our devices is convenient, but has it changed our brains, or the way we understand and store memories?

That’s what cognitive scientist Dr. Jason R. Finley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University, wants to find out. He’s researched whether technology is erasing our memories and wrote about it in his book, Memory and Technology: How We Use Information in the Brain and the World. We spoke to him about how 21st century habits affect our brain and why many researchers have been “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to this subject. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.

Dr. Finley, how did you first become interested in human learning and memory?
As a college senior at UCLA I took a class on human learning and memory, and halfway through the course I was amazed to realize that the professor’s name was the same as the author of many of the classic journal articles we were reading: Dr. Robert A. Bjork. From him I learned that memory is all that we are, but memory is not necessarily reality. I also learned the joy of carefully crafting clever research to chip away at the mysteries of the mind.

Is memory and technology a growing field?
We humans have always been the species that extends itself into the environment, making and using tools to augment or event supplant our own abilities. But sadly, mainstream psychology research has long been asleep at the wheel with regard to studying how humans use technology to support everyday cognition. With a handful of early exceptions, hardly any psychologists have done any research on the interplay between technology (external memory, stored outside your brain) and human memory (internal memory, stored inside your brain). In my opinion, this incredibly obvious and important topic has just fallen through the cracks between adjacent fields of research, including psychology, human factors, philosophy of mind, anthropology, library and information science, personal information management and so on.

Dr. Jason R. Finley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University
Dr. Jason R. Finley, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fontbonne University

(Dr. Jason R. Finley)

Tell us about your own study. How does technology affect our memory?
When Dr. Farah Naaz and I were post-doctoral researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, a powerhouse of memory research, we ran a large online survey, using Google Forms and recruiting 476 participants from Mechanical Turk, asking people about how they use technology for memory purposes.

Over the course of your career you’ve received funding from Microsoft Research and NEH, but this study was crowdfunded, right?
Yes, that’s because our idea didn’t fit in the funded research plans of the professors we worked for, so we had to get creative, via crowdfunding on and with the help of the SciFund Challenge.

What did you find out in the course of your research?
We found a growing symbiosis between internal and external memory. Some people are concerned about relying on external memory too much, or losing internal memory abilities. Many others see it as an enhancement, allowing them to strategically distribute their memory efforts between their brains and their environments, and enabling them to do more both intellectually and socially.

Explain the difference between external and internal memory.
To put it broadly, external memory is augmenting internal memory for episodic purposes (i.e. specific episodes: first kiss, what you ate for lunch yesterday), and supplanting internal memory for semantic (i.e. passwords, trivia) and prospective (i.e. remembering to do something in the future – prompts, alarms, calendar entries) purposes.

Did your participants report any shifting patterns of behavior in these memory types?
One thing we did find in our survey was people reporting that external memory allowed them to devote less time and energy to remembering some things (e.g., appointments, phone numbers). Some said that they’ve been able to use their brains for more creative and big-picture purposes, which is something we’re still better at than machines. In that way I think we are using our brains more appropriately. There is more knowledge available to us now than ever before in human history, so it makes sense that we would be learning how to use our brains in ways that are different from how, say, Socrates did.

That’s interesting. So, when people bemoan tech is ruining our memories, that’s not exactly true.
What we can say is that technology is making memory different. We are offloading semantic and prospective information onto external memory, and we are using external memory to augment episodic internal memory.

So creating more space in our brains?
The human brain doesn’t fill up and run out of space like a hard drive; the capacity of human long-term memory is essentially unlimited. Rather, counterintuitively, the more knowledge you gain, the better your ability to learn even more, and that information is distributed as patterns across a vast network of neurons all over the cerebral cortex.

Is there evidence to suggest we now think in ‘keywords’?
That’s a very interesting question. No research has been done yet that I know of, but it does seem plausible, to the extent that we’re shaping our thoughts to be compatible with how our external memories are organized. Sometimes knowing the right keyword to use in a computer search makes all the difference. But this is also why I encourage students to use multiple synonyms when saving files for easier retrieval later.

Technology gives us the ability to store memories for future generations. Can you speak about this?
Yes. I just taught a new class I made called “Memory and the Human Experience” and this is an issue we covered. Digital legacy is a new and growing issue for humanity. When your body dies, all of the memories in your brain die too. But what happens to all of your external memories (diaries, essays, photos, emails, texts, social media posts, browser history, game saves, etc.)? This is worth thinking through ahead of time. To many of us, our memories may be more valuable than our material possessions. And there’s also the perspective of collective memory. So much information about our everyday existences is being recorded now, and that could be passed into the future for posterity. Think of the value to future anthropologists to have insights into the thoughts and feelings of people that lived in the 21st century.

How do you think memory retention and learning will change as we transition from handheld devices to wearables and then to intangibles, like AR and insideables?
Wearables make external memory capture more passive, so there’s less of a trade-off between capturing versus experiencing the moment. That is a good thing. There has been research showing that people, unsurprisingly, put less effort into memorizing material for a test when they expect to have an external record of the material when needed. But a broader open question is whether our very ability to internally memorize new information will atrophy with disuse in the long term. As the technology of external memory becomes more closely integrated with our bodies and especially our nervous system, it will be easier to rely on it instead of our biological memory. As you pointed out in another article, we’re all cyborgs already.

Most kind, thanks for the plug. In your book, you quote Proust: ‘The greater part of our memory exists outside us.’
Proust explored the subjective experience of memory, and how it connects us to who we used to be, in beautifully expressive ways that complement what science can tell us. In that quote, Proust was referring to the power of environmental cues to unlock troves of memory in our own brains. Such reminding is indeed one way that external memory interacts with internal memory. But I co-opted Proust’s words to imply a greater meaning: not just that cues to memory exist outside us, but that memories themselves can exist outside us too.

As corporations shrink, institutional memory becomes lost. I interviewed the team at 8i, who are building holograms for international training programs to ‘store’ what’s known even when the people recorded are gone.
Wow, that sounds like an exciting idea. If we can clearly delineate all of an outgoing team member’s institutionally relevant knowledge, and offload that onto some kind of external memory, that would be great. A challenge is that so much institutional knowledge is implicit, and it’s hard to know what we know that other people don’t.

With the rise in AI assistants, are we not just offloading cognition onto the environment, but also training amanuensis who can help us remember (what we will not) as we age?
As we develop AI that has some agency and can to some extent understand what the human user does and doesn’t know, or is likely to forget, then yes, that would be an instance of external memory that could act as a transactive partner. I think there could very well be potential for an AI to help a person with declining memory ability, especially if the AI has been with that person for a long time. However, the history of AI has shown that it’s really hard to make them for anything but the most specific purposes. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it always seems to take much longer than we think.

Good point. Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ll be speaking at the conference of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in Cape Cod, scheduled for June 6-9 about my work to date.

Designing for a Better Death

Designing for a Better Death

In Boulder, Colorado, Jed Brubaker is plotting ways to creep you out, and he’s reaching beyond the grave to do it. An information scientist who studies digital afterlives—how our digital identities persist after our death and how we interact with the data people leave behind—Brubaker’s team at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Identity Lab explores the fine line between technologies that comfort us in grief and those that creep us out.

To do that, the group builds prototype technologies that leverage post-mortem data in ways that might make users feel uncomfortable. These prototypes include the “map of paranoia”—a Google Maps add-on that incorporates death statistics into route calculations, allowing users to evaluate routes according to how statistically dangerous they are—as well as a simulation of an artificial intelligence system that creates product advertisements that incorporate the likenesses of deceased loved ones. Imagine, Brubaker says, an avatar of your deceased grandmother saying that a certain brand of cookie is as good as the ones she used to make.

AI tools like chatbots and talking robotic heads could someday become part of the grieving process.

Brubaker’s goal is two-fold. First, by understanding where people experience discomfort, the Identity Lab hopes to inform better design practices and help designers sidestep upsetting interactions between the grieving and their loved ones’ digital remnants. Brubaker also believes that exploring when, how, and what makes users feel uncomfortable can drive how systems can be created or modified in ways that help users honor their loved ones or explore those relationships in new ways. Your grandmother selling cookies from the afterlife might feel repulsive, but a system that walks you through her recipe could elicit a different feeling.

“What it means to interact with the deceased or what it means to interact with their data is something that we don’t have a really good handle on yet, and in part I think that’s because we just haven’t experimented with it enough,” Brubaker says. “What we haven’t yet seen are enough visions of what this post-mortem interaction could be like to find the ones that are actually good for us, the ones that are thoughtful and kind.”

Rebooting Grief

Brubaker is one of a handful of researchers exploring ways of building human-computer interactions that consider both the living and the dead. “Thanatosensitive design,” as it’s known, includes features and devices created to memorialize the deceased and addresses issues that arise when the living need to access data from someone who’s passed as well as the barrage of privacy and computational challenges that come with making technologies sensitive to the deceased and those they leave behind.

Brubaker was originally drawn into the field nine years ago when Myspace was battling Facebook for social media dominance. He began noticing that when a user passed away, their friends and families would interact with each platform differently. On Myspace, people would talk to the dead directly, and if they directed grief-related posts towards anyone else, they would sometimes get reprimanded by the community. On Facebook, grief centered more around the grieving. People still posted on the deceased’s Facebook page, but friends and families often created their own separate spaces that focused on support networks for the ones left behind. That subtle difference changed what memories were discussed. In other words, the technology a person used when they were living, and the cultural rules around that platform, helped shape how they were remembered when they were no longer around.

Brubaker began conducting research, which led to his dissertation on how design helps grieving users on Facebook. That work later informed the design of Facebook Legacy Contact, a feature launched in 2015 that allows users to designate someone to manage their account after death.

Brubaker’s interviews showed that control matters. Grieving people generally found comfort in the memorial pages of deceased users, but when confronted with “uncanny encounters with death”—instances when algorithms showed users unexpected reminders of a passed loved one—they found the experience unsettling. Control is especially important when it comes to immersive and interactive technologies, says Debra Bassett, a Ph.D. student at the University of Warwick who studies how technology affects the grieving process. Bassett’s research shows that some kinds of reminders are more grief-disruptive than others—for example, people were far more emotionally affected when hearing an audio recording of a deceased loved one than they were when presented with a social media notification about that person. Bassett’s research also shows that, for the time being, people are generally more comfortable when the dead remain…dead. A new social media post generated on behalf of a deceased person or an interactive avatar of them is often considered “spooky, eerie,” Bassett says.

“Having said that, when you think about the dead popping up on Facebook, only five years ago people found that disturbing and eerie. That’s now acceptable.”

Texting From Beyond

Still, not everyone finds communicating with a deceased loved one, or rather a facsimile of them, to be eerie. For Eugenia Kuyda, the experience has been comforting. Kuyda is co-founder and CEO of Luka, an artificial intelligence start-up based in San Francisco. When her close friend Roman Mazurenko was killed in November 2015, Kuyda memorialized him by building an AI chatbot trained on thousands of text conversations the two had exchanged over the years. Whenever Kuyda felt waves of grief, she could send a text to a digital reconstruction of Roman and read messages sent back by a program that sounded like her friend.

“It is not about what the bot will say,” Kuyda says, adding that the bot frequently creates responses that are unlike what the real Roman would say. “It is mostly about what you’re going to say. It’s mostly your own outlet to finally say things that you wanted to tell this person, to feel those feelings, to let go, to remember.”

Having such an outlet has helped give Kuyda closure—a way to acknowledge feelings she tried to avoid after Roman’s death, a mechanism for keeping the love they shared in her daily life. But she’s quick to point out that the bot was “incredibly personal” and solely intended as a way to deal with her own grief. More than two years after building the Roman bot, she still texts with it every week or so. “It is a little bit magical for me still,” she says.

Since creating the original bot, Kuyda has trained the program with additional text conversations, added photo-sharing features, and, with permission from Roman’s parents, released the Roman Mazurenko chat app for free to the public.

Some startups are betting that users will get increasingly comfortable having conversations with bots that emulate a person who isn’t living. For example, Eternime, a Boston-based digital legacy planning company, says it will one day offer “virtual immortality” by building a digital avatar of you that will live in a mobile app that friends and family can download. Founded in 2014, the company’s website says it is in private beta testing and has not announced a public launch date.

More immersive post-mortem interactions have historically had a harder time in the marketplace, while several focused on one-way post-mortem communication have popped up over the years. In 2015, a prototype called Project Elysium (here is a video of an early version) promised users a customized virtual world where the bereaved could digitally visit 3D avatars of deceased loved ones. The concept generated worldwide buzz for the video game company, Paranormal Games, but was ultimately shelved. Meanwhile, a handful of companies like Leg8cy and GoneNotGone that allow people to schedule messages to be sent after their own death have cropped up over the last few years.

While this all sounds like uncharted territory, these are simply new ways of navigating the grieving process, says Jocelyn DeGroot, a researcher at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who studies how technology impacts the grieving process.

“Widows have been keeping journals and writing letters to deceased husbands. People go to the cemetery and talk out loud to their deceased loved ones,” she says. Maintaining communication with the deceased “is not anything really new, and it is healthy in terms of helping you make sense of the world without that loved one.”

Gone and Not Gone

Just outside of Bristol, Vermont, Bruce Duncan envisions a more tangible future for the bereaved. On a nearby table, an AI-equipped robotic head resembling an African-American woman nods in agreement. Duncan is managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports nano- and cybernetic technology research aimed at extending human life.

The Foundation’s work is split into two broad categories. One is biological and personal data collection, done through gathering cheek cell samples from members to store in case it becomes possible to grow a new body from your DNA in the future. The other is a social network and digital archive where users can upload information like photos, videos, and documents that could be used to one day “reanimate a person’s consciousness,” Duncan says.

The robotic head on the table is the other branch of the Foundation’s work. If growing new biobodies doesn’t pan out, Terasem is also investing in robotic and artificial intelligence technologies that can use data stored by members. The head is named BINA48—short for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture—and it’s modeled after Terasem Movement co-founder Bina Aspen Rothblatt. Released in 2010, BINA48 was built with a now outdated AI system trained on Rothblatt’s information, and was designed as a way to showcase how a person’s data might live on in an artificial body. BINA48 tilts “her” head, makes facial expressions, and can converse in real time, sometimes speaking from a robot’s perspective and other times as Rothblatt herself, freely adding in anecdotes about Rothblatt’s real-life family. (Here is a video of the real Rothblatt talking to BINA48.)

BINA48, shown here, was designed as a way to showcase how a person’s data might live on in an artificial body.

BINA48 struggles to maintain coherent dialogue, but provides entertaining conversation. During a truly bizarre Skype interview, the robotic head said that she believes “you can find the answers in God” and that “there is no God.” Her fears include thermonuclear war, “a self-replicating carbon robot that consumes all carbon on the planet,” and clowns. When asked how robots built with a deceased person’s memories would impact the grieving, BINA48 discussed the hypothetical process of mind uploading, then added, “as long as they know you’re coming, the bears are more afraid of you.”

BINA48 is advanced enough to give presentations and engage in debates, which helped it to pass two college-level philosophy courses at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. But even a more recently updated BINA is still a far cry from the technology that would be necessary for the brain and learning emulation she describes.

Regardless of how close BINA, or any other system, gets to capturing the essence of a passed loved one, technologies that make users feel like a digital form of a deceased person stays in the living world “would probably have a huge impact on whether people felt a permanent loss or something that they had to grieve and learn to let go of,” Duncan says. “Death might be redefined as when your information is no longer organized or accessible in a digital medium.”

Questions about whether technology will change our conception of death, and the most appropriate ways that technologies can honor and potentially expand on our relationships with the deceased, are exactly why research in this field is so important, says Jed Brubaker from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Identity Lab.

“Computers are now part [of] not just how we work, but how we live—and increasingly how we die as well,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what those [technologies] will look like, but I know that we’re lumbering towards them right now.”

The great digital beyond

The great digital beyond

A friend recently told me of the challenge she faced sorting through her aging parents’ belongings to prepare their home for sale.

Her father had died years ago and her 94-year-old mother had been living in an assisted-care facility for more than a year. Most of the items of sentimental or personal value had already been distributed to her siblings. What remained were her parents’ personal archives — letters, photos, employment/financial/legal/health records, all tangible, physical objects that, once gone, would be gone forever.

In the internet age, personal archives are no longer limited to the tangible. In fact, much of one’s personal archives is now digital — emails, texts, photos, videos and social media accounts. And there’s a lot more content generated and stored than ever before. Some is saved on personal storage space, such as a computer hard drive. Other material lives in the cloud in services like Facebook, Google Mail and YouTube. In most cases, that content is protected by some kind of password.

So what becomes of all of that information when someone dies? Does it remain online forever? Can it be altered, deleted or downloaded, and if so, by whom? And how do these digital artifacts represent your life and legacy?

These questions inspired Evan Carroll and John Romano to create the website to address these needs and concerns. Together they wrote the book “Your Digital Afterlife” in 2011. Since that time an entire industry has emerged to help people plan for managing their digital legacy. lists dozens of such online services. Some are free while others are fee-based., for example, “answers the question, ‘What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave from this world?’ With you set future notifications to be sent to your family and beloved people or to yourself, ensuring that nothing of your digital life will be wasted (and) transfers your online property/heritage (urls, domain names, e-mail & social network accounts, etc.) to whomever you wish to continue it in the future!” You can sign up for this free service through your Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts. In short, according to its tagline, “manages your digital heritage.”

To address financial matters, consider, which describes itself as “a secure asset protection platform where you organize your important information in encrypted vaults, and …. automatically deliver it to your designated recipients on a scheduled date, or in case of your death or incapacitation.” It is a fee-based membership service with different levels of coverage and prices depending on what you want.

The rapid growth of the web has outpaced the law in the realm of the digital afterlife. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Uniform Law Commission, a nongovernment organization, created the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). It has since been adopted by 40 states and been introduced in five more this year. As its name suggests, RUFADAA “allows fiduciaries to manage digital property like computer files, web domains, and virtual currency, but restricts a fiduciary’s access to electronic communications such as email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the original user consented in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other record.”

Some online services have their own policies for providing access to a person’s account after he or she dies. Facebook allows users to designate a “Legacy Contact” who is legally permitted to enter someone’s account to post, respond to friend requests, and update profile and cover photos. The Legacy Contact may also be given the power to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information in that account. Facebook users can also simply opt to have their account permanently deleted after their death. Google offers an Inactive Account Manager feature that allows users to share parts of their account data or notify someone if they’ve been inactive for a certain period of time.

One important and often repeated piece of advice is to never put usernames and passwords for any online accounts in your will, as it becomes a public record once it is entered into a probate court file.

It is never too soon to start estate planning, whether it be for tangible assets or digital ones. It may be well worth your time to investigate the policy options of your online account services and perhaps even avail yourself of some of the many digital afterlife services available today.

Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at

E-mortality: Death in the Digital Age

E-mortality: Death in the Digital Age

Michele Flanigan doesn’t sound like a necromancer on the phone. She laughs easily, and many of her sentences rise in pitch like open-ended questions—quirks I would not have expected in a confessed raiser of the dead.

Before she took her current job as office manager at Lakeview Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where her grandmother and mother also worked, Flanigan did a stint in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s silent neighbor. When she started, the burial records were “a mess,” she told me. She immediately began to organize the records with Microsoft Excel for quicker reference.

“I have to [organize the records], because otherwise I may never find what I’m looking for,” she said. “I’m an organizational freak, so that was definitely my first priority.”

What started out as a managerial project soon morphed into an attempt to digitize death. Over the next two years, the Grove Street staff uploaded the records Flanigan digitized to a searchable database on the cemetery’s website. Flanigan was struck by how many families called the office asking for their loved ones’ records to be added to the database. Thousands of the burials on the site—8,023 of the more than 14,000 listed—occurred before 1990, when the Internet began to go mainstream. For many of them, other than their archived obituaries, these online burial records are the only digital evidence of their existence.

When Flanigan set out to reorganize her workspace, she inadvertently resurrected more than 8,000 people in cyberspace. But Flanigan’s project is not unique, nor is it the most ambitious: a quick Google search for “digital death” reveals countless websites and services that aim to protect our online legacies after we pass on. From creating simple memorial websites to designing complex social networks, arranging for an afterlife in the cloud could soon become a normal part of preparing for death, not unlike finalizing a will or selecting a casket.


Five years ago, Mandy Benoualid and her father paid a visit to a large cemetery near downtown Montreal. Benoualid’s grandmother was interred in the cemetery’s columbarium, a stone structure that holds funeral urns. When she passed away, the urn containing her ashes had been placed in one of the many compartments lining the columbarium’s wall. Benoualid was paying her respects to her beloved grandmother when a glimmer caught her eye.

A CD cased in plastic rested in front of an urn with a man’s name inscribed on it. The front of the case said, “Dad’s work.”

Presuming “Dad” to be a writer or a musician, Benoualid googled the name on the urn but could not find any information about his life. He had no digital presence. She was frustrated by the elusiveness of his identity.

“Everybody in a cemetery has some type of history, some type of story to tell,” Benoualid told me. “There’s that date of birth and that date of death and that dash in between, and there’s so much life story within that dash.”

Shortly after that cemetery visit, she set out to help people define their dashes.

In 2013, Benoualid founded Qeepr, a website whose mission is “to ensure a loved one’s legacy lives on(line) forever.” A deceased person’s relatives can use Qeepr to design a custom online memorial page complete with photos, life milestones, and a family tree. Qeepr is one member of a larger suite of websites working to answer the same question: what should happen to our digital presence when we die?

Qeepr’s answer is simple: digital death, like digital life, should be social.