“Ctrl+S” Gives You Permission to Forget

Pressing Ctrl-S is a reflex for me, born in the heyday of the Blue Screen of Death and activated every few sentences of text, or every few words in the case of some of my more laborious college term papers. Though it’s far less necessary with today’s more stable technology, I still consider it a an action to bring about peace of mind…and, perhaps, to clear the mind as well.

Image from mattesperanza.com

Image from mattesperanza.com

The shift toward treating our electronic devices as our external devices sometimes been lamented, as the first generation of digital natives resists being forced to memorize information they could just Google later and perhaps loses the ability to memorize information at all. We’ve already seen one example of the way that storing information electronically seems to wipe it from our minds, as taking a photograph of an object can make you less likely to remember it later on.

There is a potential advantage to this external memory storage, though: knowing that this information you want to remember is saved and secure on an electronic devices frees your brain from the much greater effort of trying to store it in your brain, so you have cognitive resources to spare for learning other things instead. Now that I have a powerful computer (masquerading as a phone) clipped to my hip pocket all day, there are any number of small facts I can offload – dates and locations of meetings, quick items for my to-do list – instead of rewiring synapses to recall later. Those synapses are therefore free to be rewired to recall other, more interesting information, like the latest

The potential advantages of Ctrl+S for freeing our minds to learn other things was illustrated in a research study with undergraduate students, given the unenviable task of memorizing multiple lists of nouns. These lists were presented as separate files on a flash drive; sometimes, the students were allowed to save the file to the computer hard drive so they could study them again later. The researchers were less interested in how students remembered the saved and re-studied list, however, than they were in how students remembers a separate list that they studied and were tested on between the saving and re-studying.

So, sometimes the students would study a list of 8-10 words, save it to study some more later, and then study and be tested on a separate list of 8 to 10 words, reopen the saved file to read again, and finally be tested on that original list. Other times, the students would study the first list, close the file without saving it (knowing that they would still be tested eventually), and then study and be tested on a second list, and finally be tested on that original list.

When they couldn’t save and had no chance to review the list later on, students were stuck trying to remember the first list while also learning the second list, a condition that can cause proactive interference as trying to remember the original list makes it challenging to learn the second list. This is something you’ve probably experienced yourself, when that thought of I need to remember to bring that file to the afternoon meeting! keeps popping in your head all morning while you’re trying to work. In theory, saving the list of words frees your mind from that burden; you don’t have to try to remember that list, because it’s right there on the hard drive, and can devote your full attention just to learning the second list.

And this was the benefit of “saving-enhanced memory” that the researchers found. When students were allowed to save the original file, they went on to remember 43% of the second list, versus only 33% when they were also trying to commit the original list to memory. It’s not a massively impressive improvement in memory, but it is a statistically significant one.

It also depends entirely on trusting the computer to save those files. When students were told that sometimes the file wouldn’t save correctly – and in fact every time they tried to re-open a saved file to study it, the computer announced the file was corrupt or couldn’t be accessed – memory for that second list remained at just 33%, suggesting that they had learned not to trust the saving process and so were still devoting some mental resources to remembering that original list. In other words, if you’re in the habit of putting reminders of what you need to do on sticky notes, and then completely missing the sticky note reminder at the appropriate time, your mind is still working just as hard to remember the reminder because it can’t trust the sticky note to do the job.

There are of course some immediate questions about the extent of this saving-enhanced memory, because that research was done only with “digital natives” who grew up with a relatively reliable generation of technology, and with what is now almost archaic technology of saving to a hard drive instead of the cloud. So…

  • *Does the nearly automatic saving of cloud files such as Google Docs create the same effect of clearing our memories for new information, or does it have to be a volitional saving, trigger by the conscious action of pressing keys or clicking an icon?
  • *How often are beliefs about reliability updated, and how pervasive are they? Have my early experiences with crashed hard drives and lost files left me unwilling to trust the permanence of a saved file, or have my more recent experiences with autosave and recovery from the cloud created a deeper faith and willingness to forget what has been saved electronically?
  • *Will we trust computers with our most vital memories? A list of words for an experiment done for course credit is as close to meaningless as memory gets, so there could be no real loss to the students if the file couldn’t be retrieved. Would they be as blasé and trusting with vocabulary items that would be on their final exam? Or speech notes for a presentation they would be giving in class?

And then, there are the implications of clearing our minds of this electronically saved information. We may be able to focus our minds wholly on this other information to learn, but perhaps that will ultimately cost us a skill we might have learned with practice, of managing proactive interference to learn two sets of information simultaneously. Presumably this is what previous generations ultimately figured out. It’s hard to say whether this skill would still be useful, as we have an unprecedented quantity of information to try to learn and work with, so perhaps our brains were never going to be successful at learning it all.

There’s also the question of what this external memory strategy means when everything is made an external memory. This research shows that there’s a potential advantage to saving one list to learn another, but what if you’re saving that other list? And another? And another? Until ultimately you aren’t trying to remember anything yourself, but storing it all on the external memory? This may be fine in terms of the facts being retrievable, but it would make it impossible to make connections between the two. If your psychology facts and ideas are over here and your history facts and knowledge are over there, in separate files, you might not see how one can tell you something about the other. For insight, we need information stored in neurons in the brain, not just on a computer file.


Storm B.C., & Stone S.M. (2014). Saving-Enhanced Memory: The Benefits of Saving on the Learning and Remembering of New Information. Psychological Science. Manuscript accepted for publication. PMID: 25491269


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