Offset the High Cost of Outsourcing Your Brain to Apps

By: Joe Burton
Wall- E cartoon charaters

Want to outsource your thinking and lose more of your cognitive functions? There’s an app for that! Tons.

In the wonderful world of technology, we’ve all seen so many amazing apps to help us to outsource the need to think. If you think about all that has occurred in the world of mobile apps, the number of things that have increasingly freed us of the need to use our cognitive abilities are amazing. And somewhat concerning.


An unlimited number of free GPS apps give us perfect directions (or close enough, Apple Maps. Hrmph.) to anywhere we’d like to go. Gone are the days when we needed to remember addresses, turns, etc. We even get real-time updates on live traffic feeds, gas station locations and more. No spatial thinking skills required.

Addresses, Numbers and Such

Thanks to today’s address books, LinkedIn and other connectivity apps, we no longer have to remember phone numbers. Or addresses. Or birthdays (Facebook has saved many a friendship). You don’t even have to be aware of promotions or celebrations. They’re all delivered straight to you. We’re even served up the obligatory canned “congratulations” note to send to our social media connections. No short term or long term memory required.

Great Food Locations

Remember the days when you actually kept track of good restaurants in your address book? Today, Yelp, OpenTable and other apps have removed any need for personal note taking. They even suggest the best time of day to visit and what to eat. No taste recognition memory needed.


Just set your RSS feeds and get whatever news sources and topics you want. You can even filter for the kinds of news you want (ahem, Democrats and Republicans). And forget the full news, just consume the headlines because being semi-informed is the new well-read. Comprehensions skills are being sidelined.


These days, it’s common for a young doctor or nurse to welcome you, sit down at a desk and then ask you questions from a list on the computer. More than a few people think “I could have Googled my symptoms at home.” Goodbye bedside manners, empathy and compassion. So long having to learn new things.

The good news about all these apps is that they’ve freed up a significant amount of thinking time. Yes, indeed. We’ve freed up so much time to dedicate to higher purpose endeavors. Even the wellness space realizes this and is turning to digital wellbeing solutions for their employees. The bad news is that most of us haven’t filled that available cognitive space with anything of value. In fact, most of us have filled that excess capacity with more time to check feeds, play video games, worry about the past, worry about the future, check feeds, regret, anxiety, check feeds and a full range of things that provide no benefit whatsoever. Let me check my feed. And cat videos. Ok, not entirely wasteful if you’re my friend Mak.

Science suggest that we become better at the things we do most. Increasingly, we’re no longer exercising our abilities to remember, recall and connect the dots to the basic information that drives our lives. We’re also no longer exercising the brain’s ability to do these things. In fact, a recent Microsoft study suggests that the human attention span has decreased from 12 to 8 seconds (about the level of a frickin’ goldfish). That’s concerning. For those of you unable to focus, I said a frickin’ goldfish. That’s concerning.

Here’s an idea: be mindful in the way you use your apps. Don’t over rely on them. You know, for when the robots take over. Don’t download every single app that looks cool. Find the ones that make you the most efficient and get rid of the rest. Most important, find new ways to keep your brain sharp.

Mindfulness helps us create new neural pathways and build up muscle memory in areas where we need it most. For most of us, that comes down to the ability to focus and be in the moment. This actually keeps our brain sharp, fresh and functioning at its best for things like recall, memory, the ability to control our emotions and regulate our central nervous systems.

As we continue to outsource more of our cognitive abilities, brain training encourages us to also think of ways to exercise our brains to keep our cognitive abilities intact. Our cognitive abilities are also necessary to ward off things like Alzheimer’s, dementia and a range of mental disorders.

Outsourcing feels great. We know there’s an app for that. But please think about insourcing other experiences to keep your cognitive abilities active. The mind is still a terrible thing to waste.

P.S. Good news for mindfulness and wellbeing training, the RethinkCare app is for that.

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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