If you think your smartphone makes you smarter, think again.

They are called smartphones but does their effect on us make us dumb? I always thought there was a good chance that they impact our memory. When was the last time you memorized someone’s phone number or a short grocery list? We no longer need to with these handy devices in our pockets. And I knew they weren’t good for navigational skills which, I must confess, is not something I’ve ever been strong at anyway. My husband has a great sense of direction but mine is terrible so I often rely on the ever helpful and available Google Maps. But the idea that smartphones could actually make us dumb is one that never crossed my mind, until I read the results of a fascinating study from April 2017. It turns out our phones really can reduce our cognitive ability—and they can do it just by being in the room with us.

Wondering how that’s possible? Well, our capacity to think is determined by two factors: our working memory and our fluid intelligence. The first, our working memory, allows us to proactively select, maintain and process information that we need for a specified reason. The second, our fluid intelligence, allows us to think through problems and find solutions. Both working memory and fluid intelligence require us to be able to choose information, store it and then manipulate it with the objective of accomplishing something. Both also require our attention in order to function—but our attention is a limited resource.

If we are paying attention to one thing, we have less resources available to pay attention to another. Now more than ever, we have a lot going on around us, constantly demanding our attention, especially in the form of technology. Over the past 10 plus years, our phones have become increasingly and intrinsically woven into all aspects of our lives. Now most people can’t imagine life without their smartphones—they have become indispensable extensions of ourselves. And these extensions commandeer a significant portion of our finite attention, whether we are actively using them or not.

Why does this happen? Because our phones distract us, even if notifications are turned off and we don’t interact with them. Also, it takes a lot of effort for us to ignore the lure and attraction of our smartphones, since they are such an integral part of our lives. The result of all this is that our phones negatively impact our thinking capacity and functioning, and it’s happening whether we realize it or not. If asked, most people don’t think their phone has any impact on their cognitive performance. But the data shows that it does.  

So, what can we do about this? How can we mitigate the negative effects of our phones and avoid the ‘brain drain’ they can cause? The study indicates that it isn’t enough to place your phone face down. Surprisingly, it also isn’t enough to turn it off. The solution is to physically separate yourself from your smartphone. For this to be effective, your phone should be in a different room than you, not just ‘put away’ in the same room. You also need to ensure it doesn’t make any sounds that you might hear, so put it on silent or airplane mode, or just turn it off.

If you are very involved with your phone and interact with it a lot, you should also try spending more time offline. Intentionally choosing to disconnect from your phone and other digital devices will help increase your thinking ability. If you need some help cutting back on your screen time, here are some tips for doing so.

To some, all this may sound like paranoia or overkill. But for me, the data speaks for itself. And when I think about how some people act when they have their phones—distracted and unfocussed—it’s not hard to see how their ability to think isn’t what it should be. Although they’re called smartphones, it turns out they can make us dumber, if we let them.

 

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