There is no doubt that the Internet and “smart” devices such as cellphones and tablets have irrevocably changed the way in which we live, but are they also changing the way we think? A recent study from the University of Chicago suggests so, and its conclusions are grim. The study reports that just the presence of a smartphone reduced the cognitive ability of users.
The Study: Brain Drain
Cellphones are always within arm’s reach. Very few people leave their homes without them, and few people believe that they could live without their phones. It is only a small minority of people who would give up access to their devices. The benefits and potentials that these devices have are prioritized in our minds, but these can create deficits in off-screen performances.
We have all had this happen to us and we have all done this. Sometimes checking a text or email takes mental priority over listening to your friend or significant other telling you something. It is not that what they have to say is not important to you, it is just that your brain has assigned more importance to the text or email. This is the very same reason people are told not to text and drive. It steals attention from other important, off-screen things.
The researchers call this a “brain drain.” They argue that it is not only attention that is being stolen from other tasks by the cellphone, but actual cognitive ability as well. This is based on the reality that an individual only has a finite amount of cognitive capacity to deal with a virtually infinite amount of external stimuli. Individuals need to be selective with what environmental stimuli they assign their cognitive capacity. “Jack of all trades, master of none” and conceptions about multitasking, these colloquialisms all stem from this idea that humans only have so much processing power to do things. This study suggests that smartphones increase cognitive load by just being around, meaning that cognitive capacity is reduced.
The experiments this study ran tested the attentional allocation of smartphone users. During the tests, phones were either highly salient -meaning in the same room and in view- or of low salience -meaning they were placed in other rooms-. Users whose phones were in a different room scored higher for available working memory capacity and general fluid intelligence. In short, even the presence of an individual’s cellphone meant they were assigning it an underlying cognitive consideration, which means they were unable to use that those tied up mental resources for other tasks.
It is worth pointing out that nowhere did this study suggest that cellphones are inherently bad, but that they do inherently change the way we interact with the world. It does demonstrate the trade that individuals have made for ease of access to information and social interaction, and shows the costly side of the benefits. Like most things in this world, it is neither good or bad.
If anything, it is of my opinion that this is failing of the human brain more so than a devious trick by manufacturers and the market. We are animals and there are exploits in our brains that evolution over the 200,000 years Homo sapiens have been around has not been able to deal with. But maybe if you are working on something important, putting your phone in a different room may not be the worst idea. And please, do not text and drive.
Though I have attempted to do this study justice with brevity, if it truly interests you I suggest reading the study in full: http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/691462
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