Can Your SmartPhone Hurt Your Brain?


    It is absolutely incredible how far smartphones have come in recent years. In the beginning, the idea of texting was a novel concept that nobody had brought to fruition. Now, users can surf the web, text message, call, e-mail, get directions, and so much more with this handy device.

    Our smartphones are exactly that: smart. They have dramatically and powerfully altered the way we communicate and connect with others. They also now play an enormous role in most of our daily lives.

    However, is our dependence on our smartphones a bad thing? And, even worse, is their mere presence causing us to perform our day-to-day tasks less efficiently than normal?


    According to Medical News Today:

    “Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin set out to examine the effect that having one’s smartphone nearby can have on one’s ability to concentrate.

    The team was led by Adrian Ward, an assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and the findings were published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

    As the authors of the new study explain, previous research had suggested that “the mere presence of personally relevant stimuli” can cause us to perform worse cognitively.

    Prof. Ward and colleagues wanted to test this “brain drain” hypothesis in regard to smartphones. They wanted to see whether merely being in the presence of the device, without even using it, would make consumers less able to complete cognitive tasks.

    They also wanted to see whether this potential effect would occur even when smartphone owners were otherwise able to successfully control their attention.

    Studying smartphones and brain power

    Prof. Ward and colleagues examined almost 800 smartphone owners. They asked the users to take part in two experiments designed to assess their ability to complete cognitive tasks while their smartphones were in the vicinity.

    In one of the experiments, all participants had to put their smartphones on silent. They were then randomly assigned to one of the following scenarios:

    • the “high salience, ‘desk’ condition,” in which they had to keep their phones within reach and in sight
    • the “medium salience, ‘pocket/bag’ condition,” during which their phones were nearby but out of sight
    • the “low salience, ‘other room’ condition,” in which the device was in a separate room

    Under each of these conditions, the participants were asked to complete a series of computerized tests created to test their ability to focus.

    Scoring highly on the tests required perfect concentration. The tests were designed to evaluate the participants’ cognitive capacity on two dimensions: “available working memory capacity (WMC) and functional fluid intelligence (Gf).”

    WMC refers to a person’s attentional resources, as well as his or her ability to use these resources to store and process new information. Gf describes a person’s ability to think about and solve new problems.

    Presence of devices reduces brain power

    Overall, the experiment revealed that the sheer presence of a smartphone can affect cognitive capacity on both of these levels.

    Participants who had their phones in a separate room performed much better than those who had their devices on the desk, and slightly better than those whose phones were in their pocket or bag.

    “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,” the authors write.

    “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases.”

    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.” – Prof. Adrian Ward

    The research doesn’t stop there. According to the article, the researchers soon began to include people admitting they were dependent on their cell phones into the study. These people confessed their reliance on these devices to complete day-to-day tasks, as well as their feelings when the phone was not close by.

    These participants gave answers to a 13-question survey to determine their cell phone dependence. The survey gave statements such as “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone.” and “Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”

    After assessing the participants’ dependence, their performance in the study revealed something interesting. The “brain drain” phenomenon affected these smartphone-dependent participants more than any other group.

    This is shocking news to smartphone users, and is likely to be a “wake-up call” for those who feel overly dependent on their devices.