Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently completed a comprehensive study illustrating the effects of smartphones on the human brain. What they found was that ‘smart’ phones actually make us dumb.
According to the study, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, having a smartphone around is a definitive way to lower our cognitive ability.
According to the study’s authors, Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence. We conclude by discussing the practical implications of this smartphone-induced brain drain for consumer decision-making and consumer welfare.
The study points out the fact that smartphones are a revolutionary way for people across the world to access information and stay connected with the simple tap. They note that this state of constant connection would not have even been possible, just ten years ago. They also note the massive contribution to humanity that smartphones have brought us.
However, according to the study, the ease of completing simple tasks in the presence of our smartphones is hindered — even if our phones are off.
As Science Daily reports,
In one experiment, the researchers asked study participants to sit at a computer and take a series of tests that required full concentration in order to score well. The tests were geared to measure participants’ available cognitive capacity — that is, the brain’s ability to hold and process data at any given time. Before beginning, participants were randomly instructed to place their smartphones either on the desk face down, in their pocket or personal bag, or in another room. All participants were instructed to turn their phones to silent.
The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.
The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.
“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “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.”
Dependency on one’s phone is also a factor in determining the level of cognitive degradation, according to the study.
Researchers asked the nearly 800 smartphone users to self-report on their level of smartphone dependency — or how strong of an urge a person feels to use their phones to simply get through the day.
As SD reports,
Participants performed the same series of computer-based tests as the first group and were randomly assigned to keep their smartphones either in sight on the desk face up, in a pocket or bag, or in another room. In this experiment, some participants were also instructed to turn off their phones.
The researchers found that participants who were the most dependent on their smartphones performed worse compared with their less-dependent peers, but only when they kept their smartphones on the desk or in their pocket or bag.
The fact that the researchers found that it didn’t matter whether the phone was on or off is a telling sign over the power of technology. Merely having a smartphone nearby reduces our ability to focus and perform tasks because part of our brain is constantly devoted to the phone and actively working to not pick it up or use it.
“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” said Ward. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”