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Your Smartphone Makes You Less Smart

Woman checking her smartphone while in bed

Many of us have come to wonder how we could ever get through our days without our smartphones. It makes sense. Those handy devices are capable of centralizing our scheduling, allow us to keep in contact with others, and can even let us do small bits of work while we’re on the move. They’re almost universally useful in the developed world. Unfortunately, that may have more of an impact on us than we’d like to think. Research is beginning to show that being even somewhat married to our smartphones tends to have a negative effect on our cognitive capacity. Why though? It is true that smartphones help us look smarter by giving us access to the world’s information with the few presses of a button, but that doesn’t actually do us any favors mentally. To understand why we’re going to need to take a closer look at how the mind works and what exactly researchers have said proximity to our smartphones does to how our minds work.

Out of Memory
Those of us who’ve used a computer long enough have typically run into an out of memory error. The computer simply hits a point where it doesn’t have enough storage to handle everything that is going on. Your brain isn’t really a computer, but it does have a more limited capacity than many New Age proponents might have you think. Thinking quite literally consumes energy stores in your body and, as a result, your mind actually does its best to minimize the amount of higher level thought you put into anything. The bulk of your thoughts all take place in your subconscious and you’ve generally already made up your mind before you realize that you have. It is one of those quirks of the mind that it is hard to believe, but that research continues to validate. When you actually pause to actively think about things, you activate another mode of thought that starts consuming energy and starts a more intense process. You can only keep this up for so long as well. These two modes of thought play heavily into what researchers are saying about smartphone usage.

Behind the Curtain
Think about all your smartphone does for you constantly. How many times a day do you check it for updates without it alerting you with a buzz or a sound? We unconsciously adopt a rhythm of thought that leads us to check periodically so that we maintain the connection and alertness that the smartphone represents to many of us. Unfortunately, that is actually eating up a decent amount of your subconscious thinking power. Your mind is gauging when you last checked and comparing it to average times between alerts and looping that sort of thought pattern to keep you on alert. This limits how much brainpower you have available for processing other things and is the source of the degradation that researchers have noticed. Additionally, there is some suggestion that the ready availability of information means our brains work less rather than try to recall information we know as well. These combined factors make it seem like smartphones make us less cognitively adept.

Changing Ways
In many ways, some of these problems are the same people have experienced with the coming of all new technology that facilitated the transmission of information. Smartphones aren’t unique in that respect, but the effect size is noticeable. The slowed cognitive processing effect was evident for anyone with their smartphone in the same room. It didn’t matter if the phone was off, silent, or out of sight. Simply knowing the smartphone was around was enough to cause the negative cognitive impact. However, the problem is just as easily solved as it is caused. All you have to do is put your smartphone in another room. Researchers found that the effect entirely vanished when people were instructed to leave the devices in another room before engaging in a test. So don’t worry about smartphones being the doom of humanity. All they do is make you think a little slower when you’re in the same room with your own phone.

Our smartphones actually make it slightly harder for us to think when they’re in the same room. The devices aren’t uniquely devastating to the human mind due to radiation, blue light, or anything of that nature. Our minds are simply self-trained to fixate on the devices as long as they’re in the same room as us. Just leave your phone in another room before you do anything that requires a lot of brainpower and you should be fine.

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