Spoiler alert: I don’t own a smartphone. Also, I’ve been reluctant to write a Health Tip on smartphones lest two of my least desirable characteristics–smugness and self-righteousness– surface. But now a very well-conducted research study on how smartphones lead to cognitive decline compels me to warn you that if you value your brain, use your phone as little as possible.
As a start, have you noticed you need to look up information you once had memorized? That you check GPS routes for simple trips that you once knew because you could see the Chicago street grid system in your mind? You didn’t need a smartphone to get from Hyde Park to Wrigley Field.
Moreover, you’ve probably also seen a group of friends or a family at a restaurant, all incessantly checking and responding to prompts from their phones. In my neighborhood, across from DePaul University, seeing students actually interacting with each other and not their phones has become a rarity. Dog walkers staring at their phones just keep walking while their poor mutts are trying to pee. Young mothers chat or text, utterly ignoring their child’s excited discoveries of a new day. Nothing quite so depressing as daddy on a phone as his toddler reaches upward for a hug.
In other words, as we increasingly turn to smartphones for managing and enhancing our daily lives, we need to question how this dependence affects our ability to think and function in a world off-screen.
Brain theft by phone
In a recently reported article, researchers found that the simple act of having your smartphone near you reduces your brain’s ability to function efficiently…even when your phone is turned off.
Tracking the cognitive skills of close to 800 undergraduates at the University of Texas, researchers were surprised to discover that merely being near their smartphones adversely affected the cognitive abilities of the test subjects. This brain theft by phone occurred during the same span of time participants thought they were paying attention to a lecture or a reading assignment.
Get this: not only had the students not been using their phones, but later on, after the study, they said they weren’t even thinking about their phones. Nevertheless, the nearby phone drained their brains.
How could this happen?
“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” said Adrian F Ward, lead author of the study. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”
More than 500 students were divided into three groups, each group with a different phone location.
Group 1: Left their phones in the lobby of the building in which they were being tested.
Group 2: Brought their phones into the testing room, but had to lay them face-down and turn them off.
Group 3: Brought phones into the testing room, but had to keep them in their pockets or satchel and turned off.
After completing two standardized tests of abstract reasoning and math, it turned out that Group 1 performed significantly better than Groups 2 and 3. In fact, there was virtually no difference between having the phone on the desk or in the pocket or carrier bag. Just having the phone nearby and accessible was enough to trigger brain drain. When the phone was in the lobby and not accessible, there was no brain drain.
This time 275 students were organized into the same groups and phone locations, but Group 2 was allowed to have its phones face up. All three groups were allowed to power-on or power-off their phones.
And again, after completing a different set of tests of abstract reasoning, the results were the same, unrelated to incoming notifications (the power-on group) or the possibility of incoming notifications (the power-off group). Only the students who had left their phones in the lobby did well on the tests.
In the past, researchers thought that being alerted by an incoming message was the source of distraction and poor performance, but the study shows that this is not the case. The simple presence of a smartphone was responsible. Your brain thinks about your nearby smartphone and immediately suffers functional decline.
Ward says, “The more consumers depend on their smartphones, the more they seem to suffer from their presence.”
On the plus side, you’ll get smarter the more you’re away from it.
Every ten minutes
Here’s a seriously spooky add-on. Although your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, the process of requiring yourself not to think about something uses up your brain’s resources. “Thinking about” or “not thinking about” your smartphone triggers a brain drain.
Larry D Rosen, a psychologist and author of The Distracted Mind, describes groups of smartphone-habituated students observed while studying. “They studied only about ten minutes at a time, the maximum ability to pay attention and not feel compelled to check their phones. People check their phones even when the phone doesn’t vibrate or they do not get notifications.”
This behavior of constant phone checking will, according to Rosen, increase your anxiety level and create difficulties in processing information. “How can you remember anything deeply if you only process it for a few minutes?” (and in a state of low-level anxiety to boot).
Let me add here that the sudden ping or vibration of your phone will trigger a low-level fight-or-flight startle response and release some adrenalin and cortisol from your adrenal glands. These cortisol bursts have been proven to interfere with short-term memory.
As a physician, I’ve certainly noticed that patients have trouble remembering instructions if we’re interrupted by their phone. From this study, I’ve learned that the mere ownership of a smartphone will impair their attention span.
Science fiction fans are familiar with the theme of apparently inanimate substances being not only alive but also trying to conquer the earth. Author Clifford D Simak wrote the book Desertion in 1944. In it, the element silicon is alive and the basis for life on the planet Jupiter, just as carbon is the basis for life on earth. Later writers expanded on this theme.
Today, silicon has apparently transported our lives via our computers and smartphones, and now ultimately controls our brains. And all this time you were worrying about Russia or ISIS or Trump when the real threat was right there in your pocket.
David Edelberg, MD