In a recent Wall Street Journal article “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds”, Nicholas Carr lays out a compelling case for the negative impact of smartphones on our cognitive ability. Several academic studies support this conclusion. The question is - do we care? And will we, as individuals or society, do anything about it?
Compulsively checking your phone
Carr references a statistic based on data Apple collects that a typical smartphone user pulls out and uses their phone some 80 times a day. Nothing important happens in your life 80 times a day. We are so addicted that we cannot help compulsively checking our phones. To think that this doesn’t have an effect on our brains is silly, and it turns out there is academic research that supports this.
Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens.
The studies referenced in the article all point to decreased cognitive ability if your phone is nearby, beeping, vibrating, or in any other way pulling your attention away from the task at hand - even if subconsciously. The most interesting study is summarized by Carr:
The researchers recruited 520 undergraduate students at UCSD and gave them two standard tests of intellectual acuity. One test gauged “available cognitive capacity,” a measure of how fully a person’s mind can focus on a particular task. The second assessed “ﬂuid intelligence,” a person’s ability to interpret and solve an unfamiliar problem. The only variable in the experiment was the location of the subjects’ smartphones. Some of the students were asked to place their phones in front of them on their desks; others were told to stow their phones in their pockets or handbags; still others were required to leave their phones in a different room. As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased. The results were striking. In both tests, the subjects whose phones were in view posted the worst scores, while those who left their phones in a different room did the best. The students who kept their phones in their pockets or bags came out in the middle. As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased
It is amazing that even having your phone near you can reduce your brainpower. That is how much our brains are being re-wired. And we are mostly unaware that this is happening. Millennials have only known an adulthood with smartphones, so we can’t know what our mental abilities could have been without them.
Does it matter?
Even if we all agree that smartphones have an impact on our brains, does it matter? Does the infinite information at our fingertips outweigh any negative impact on our brain? Maybe at some level, but we have taken it too far. Carr writes:
as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking. No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.”
We cannot outsource all information recall to our phones and expect to think as well. We miss out on the mental associations that our brain subconsciously makes among the memories it stores. As Carr writes, “we sacrifice our ability to turn information into knowledge.”
What is the solution?
Ditching the smartphone entirely is not a practical solution. But limiting smartphone use or going smartphone free for part of the day is achievable. Leave it at home, leave it in the next room, but just put some distance between yourself and your phone. For your brain’s sake.