Being Near Your Phone Could Hurt Your Brain’s Functional Capacity

Your phone might be draining several key areas of your brain. Here's the science.

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Your smartphone may reduce your cognitive capacity—even if you don’t use it.

Titled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” the study shows how phones change cognitive processes for the worse. Researchers at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin gathered 800 participants and asked them to complete a series of computer tasks specifically designed to require their full attention.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people who’d left their phones in another room scored higher on the tests than the people who kept their phones on their desks—but this group also scored higher than people who kept their phones in their pockets.

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“The proliferation of smartphones has ushered in an era of unprecedented connectivity,” the study’s authors wrote. “[…]Just a decade ago, this state of constant connection would have been inconceivable; today, it is seemingly indispensable.” “We propose that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may induce ‘brain drain’ by occupying limited-capacity cognitive resources for purposes of attentional control.”

The researchers believe that smartphones prevent us from paying full attention to certain tasks.

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When our smartphones are present, we necessarily pay more attention to them—we’re incapable of treating our smartphones as unimportant.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” said co-author Adrian Ward to Science Daily. “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 study shows that smartphones affect cognitive capacity in two ways: available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence.

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Other studies have drawn similar conclusions. One survey from Kaspersky Lab indicated that Americans use their phones as “replacement memories,” choosing to store important information in the digital realm.

“Our brain appears to strengthen a memory each time we recall it, and at the same time forget irrelevant memories that are distracting us. Past research has repeatedly demonstrated that actively recalling information is a very efficient way to create a permanent memory,” said Dr. Maria Wimber of the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology.

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“[…]It can be argued that the trend to look up information before even trying to recall it prevents the build-up of long-term memories.”

Looks like phones are going to continue to be controversial. Do they help us? Or, do they hurt us?

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