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Your Smartphone Is Stealing Your Brain

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.”

First study
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.

Second study
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.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment

  1. Joy Monice Malnar says:

    Thanks for an excellent health tip. Now I will no longer apologize to my friends for missing calls and messages because I do not have my phone on me.

  2. Jim Ullom says:

    Great article Dr. E. Thank you

  3. David Krzyminski says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Finally someone addressing this issue. Now how does the message get out there so people believe it and don’t makes excuses?

  4. Fascinating. I have wondered why, when I am walking long expanses of beach, keeping my IPhone in my fanny pack so I can see how many steps I walked, I don’t feel the sunset touching my insides any more..the colors and sounds of the glorious sea, or sky or birds and trees don’t ripple through me as powerfully as when I was “younger.” I don’t believe for a second it is age..it must be the damn IPhone. Even justifying its need so I can listen to my guided meditations or my audio books, which I so enjoy gives me pause. Can I receive the deep connection or ease from within, from silence? Oh, dear…very provocative and concerning, indeed.

  5. Don strayhorn says:

    Thats a good article dr edelberg and serious as well as funny – don strayhorn

  6. Barbara Newman says:

    Brilliant! I will forward this to my friends in the Resistance. I’ve long demanded that students turn off their devices in my classroom, but don’t have the authority to make them leave their phones at home.

  7. Pet Fishman says:

    Thank you for the insight!
    I long for the days of land lines and answering machines.
    And remembering phone numbers by heart!
    It could happen again !!!

  8. Terri Arbin Basso says:

    I too have noticed many of the things you bring up in your article. I am really worried about the effect the smart phone is going to have on my young grandsons in the future. How are employers getting 8 hours of work out of employees these days? I am so glad I grew up when I did.

  9. Jude Mathews says:

    Add to this: Has anyone with a smartphone been without it for a few days while it was being repaired, or while you were waiting for a new one? Personally, I find myself relieved when this has happened. You can call it addiction, or anything else. But it is mind-numbing.
    One huge problem is the interconnectedness which people, especially younger people, feel when their phones are on. It also has a coolness factor. Who are you if you don’t text all the time?
    Not an easy nut to crack, but then again, neither was smoking, and we’ve managed to come a long way with that one, IMHO.

  10. Judy Zaleske says:

    Would it be so bad if we disconnected from it? What is so important?

  11. Jonathan Miller says:

    Hi Dr. E.,

    Your blog about too much Internet/smartphone time was great.

    I wanted to report on a very small and unsystematic but hopefully useful study with an N=1 (myself).

    About a month ago, I was walking the dogs in the park at the end of a frazzled day. I was feeling stressed and particularly like I couldn’t keep up with all the online stuff I felt I was supposed to keep up with, from e-mails to texts to customer inquiries for our adult choirs, to Facebook and politics and everything that the digital ecosystem tries to persuade me I have to master.

    So there I was, with the dogs. I had deliberately left my cell phone at home to give myself a little break from the tech-race. Looking up and out, smelling the fresh evening air, enjoying being fully present with my dogs, I suddenly had the sobering thought: “I feel so free. And I don’t have my smartphone with me.” The next thought was: “Okay, let’s go old-school. If all I had were a landline, a typewriter, and a copy machine, would the way I spend my time be all that different from what I do now?” The answer came back with such a resounding YES that I was stopped in my tracks. I had not been making time to sing, to compose, to read, to literally smell the flowers, and I needed to get back to those things — and to things like them that feed the soul.

    I resolved, then and there, to take the step of voluntarily curbing and rationing my online time. I did some quick math: could I make do with “only” 20 hours of online time a week? That came to 10 minutes per waking hour of my whole life, or about 16 percent of the time I do not sleep. I reasoned that, if I could not get my life done in that amount of internet time, there would be something seriously wrong with me. I decided then and there to do this for a year: I am now voluntarily restricting myself to 20 online hours per week.

    So I use my smartphone partly as a timer. When I need to go online and do anything that requires me to be connected to the Web (phone calls don’t count unless they are over Skype or WhatsApp or something that needs WiFi, but I mostly like old-style audio calls anyway), I first turn on my phone and click “resume,” so that my digital countdown from 20 hours continues. When I’m done, I open my phone again and hit “pause.”

    This one change has dramatically improved the quality of my life. Surprisingly, I enjoy my offline time, and I have yet to use up all my 20 hours in a given week. (It helps that I have also instituted, and mostly observe, a personal Shabbat from 2pm Friday to 2pm Saturday, a time adjustment to reflect my reality as a performing musician. I don’t take a complete electronic Shabbat, and sometimes I miss the mark, but my basic goal is to take 24 hours off from my two main musical jobs to get a break for my brain and soul.)

    I doubt that I will go back to more than 20 hours online per week once this first year is up. I am enjoying myself too much. I also am actually more productive now, not less, and I find that I’m managing my time better and doing a better job concentrating on the important things.

    One of the main things that I now enjoy is control over when the digital world invades me. I am a huge extrovert, so I thrive on contact with the outside world, but it’s better if that contact is just a little more on my terms, and on my initiating, than the other way around. I still work too much, which (I now see) has little to no relationship with how much time I spend online, but that’s another balancing task to pursue. For the time being, I feel like I have taken my life back from my iPhone, and with all respect to the late Steve Jobs, I like it this way far better.



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