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Scientists Reveal How Smartphones Make Us Dumber

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Turning your phone off to avoid distraction may be futile because your brain still knows it’s there.

By Stephanie Wood Posted Aug 9, 2017

Texting on phone

A recent study has concluded that just because you put your phone in your pocket on vibrate, doesn’t mean it isn’t distracting you.

This study determined that the physical presence of one’s smartphone, visible or not, takes up resources in a person’s brain that caused participants to do more poorly on cognitive tests. The study, entitled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” came out of The University of Texas at Austin by Assistant Professor Adrian F. Ward and co-authors.

The article explains how your brain delivers ‘automatic attention’ to stimulus that’s often relevant to your routine – in this case, checking your phone. The study likens this constant, unconscious attentiveness to the “involuntary attention system that responds to the sound of one’s own name.” But since your brain can only process so much stimulus at one time, your phone takes up valuable “limited-capacity attentional resources” when it’s nearby. This reduces the attention you can give to your task at hand – whether it be work, an exam, or a conversation.

As Ward explained in a press release at the University of Texas, “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

The Experiments

To reach this conclusion, the researchers conducted two similar experiments on a large pool of graduate students. In the first experiment, the researchers split 520 participants into three different groups:

  • high salience, with their phones face down on their desk
  • medium salience, with their phones nearby in their pockets or bags
  • low salience, with their phones left in another room

The researchers did not let on the significance of smartphones to the study until after the cognitive tests, when participants were asked how they thought the presence of their phone affected their performance.

In the second experiment, 175 participants were split up in the same way, with some minor adjustments. The researchers told some participants at random to silence or shut off their phones, and the high salience group had their phones face up on their desks.

“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

—Adrian F. Ward

The desk group, perhaps unsurprisingly, performed the worse on the cognitive tests in both experiments. As well, as the researchers correctly predicted, the minor changes made in the second experiment did not significantly change the results, despite the fact students variously had their phones on vibrate, on ring, or completely off. The results from the desk groups were consistent enough for the researchers to suggest “that intuitive ‘fixes’ such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile.”

Perhaps the most glaring finding was that “participants in the ‘bag/pocket’ group did not do significantly better than the ‘desk’ group. Just being aware that one’s phone was nearby still attracted automatic attention.

As Ward went on to explain, “It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. There mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

smartphone on desk

Regain Your Brain

The researchers conclude “at least one simple solution: separation.”

They suggest defined intervals of separation to improve performance, “not just by reducing interruptions but also by increasing available cognitive capacity.”

If you think this research isn’t relevant to you, consider these statistics: in the surveys after the tests were completed, 75.9% percent of the participants didn’t think the location of their phone negatively impacted their performance, and 85.6% believed the cell phone itself “neither helped nor hurt [their] performance.” As well, if you think you’re better off because you’re not emotionally attached to your phone, this study is also a rude awakening. The researchers found emotional dependence on one’s phone did not directly correlate with worse results. Instead, the researchers consider that need, not like, was the primary factor. This seems to suggest the heaviest dependence, and therefore the poorest performance, could result from one’s career or other factors.

The suggestion to regularly separate oneself from one’s smartphone is particularly helpful advice to students and working professionals, who have a lot to gain from improved cognitive capability, but who are also probably most attached to their phones. However, making people tangibly change their smartphone habits will be difficult. For example, a study by dscout Inc. found that participants on average touched their phone over 2,000 times a day. When these numbers were revealed to the subjects, 41% stated they probably still wouldn’t change their habits, and 27% gave the slightly more nuanced response that though they wished they could change, they probably wouldn’t. Only 24% responded they would try to lower their use.

There may still be a small movement of people trying to steer away from relying on smartphones. Ward et al. point to some examples, such as people using phones with less smart capabilities, or installing apps that track and limit your smartphone use, as supplementary solutions “for the digitally weary.”

An Ever-Growing Network

The findings of ‘Brain Drain’ open the door to other questions. The study acknowledges the presence of smartphones may impede children’s education as a distraction. Going further, one may wonder: what are the implications for children’s development? If a child owns a smartphone from a young age while they are still developing – which is more and more often the case – could it impede their brains’ ability to develop as many attentional resources in the first place?

toddler on phone
As well, the researchers argue “few, if any, stimuli are so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones,” but they can see how their findings may “apply more broadly to future connective technologies.” As smart technology is ever increasing, what will be the impact of, say, smart televisions? Or smart watches, tablets, and other devices that hook up directly to your smartphone, making it even more pervasive? What about the fact phones are only taking on a larger role in our lives – for example, by processing payments and paving the way to a cashless society? How far will someone have to go to distance themselves from an increasingly ‘smart’ world, and just how much will this world affect their own intelligence?

This study enlightens readers of just how deeply technology affects us and how we function, even into the deep recesses of our brains. It also proves that even more research needs to be done in this area. As smartphones become more popular even in developing countries across all ages, the human population stands to benefit or suffer from the omnipresence of smartphones collectively, hand in hand – or, smartphone in hand.

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Scientists Reveal How Smartphones Make Us Dumber

Author photo
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Stephanie Wood is a freelance writer from North Vancouver, BC, with a special interest in environmental journalism. She enjoys hiking trails, finding thrift and antique treasures, and traveling abroad.
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  • I’ve sensed this during leisure time with friends. Just the presence of their smartphones made it seem as if they weren’t 100% there. It also seems that whenever a question comes up they pull out the phones and get the answer from Google. Does this help critical thinking?

    • Shannon Cowan

      We know that it has impacts on our ability to remember things. Another study suggested that actively recalling information is a better way to create a permanent memory than passively (and repeatedly) looking it up. In other words, looking something up before trying to recall it prevents some people from building long-term memories.

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