Smartphones Are Draining Our Brains


Just being around your smartphone can make you, well, less smart. A study led from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin found that people scored lower on cognitive tests while in the presence of their phones.

The study observed almost 800 people while experimenting with smartphone visibility to see how people were able to finish a task while their phones were near. Adrian Ward, an assistant professor at McCombs, said the closer the phone was, the more people seemed to be unable to concentrate.

Credit: Esther Vargas/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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

In the study’s first experiment, the researchers had participants randomly assigned to place their phones in three different areas: on the desk, in their pockets or bags and in another room. The phones were to be on ‘silent,’ where no vibration or ringing could be heard. The participants then completed two tasks as well as an exploratory test designed to measure their available cognitive capacity.

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Those whose phones were in a different room performed better than those who had their phones on the desk beside them. The participants who had their phones in their pockets or bags didn’t perform differently from the other groups in any significant way but the experiment suggested that as the smartphone got closer to the participant, their cognitive capacity decreased, the researchers said.

The second experiment duplicated the first, with a few exceptions. The researchers observed the participants’ self-reported smartphone dependence as well as how it affected their cognitive capacity.

Participants were randomly told to turn their phones off completely during the second experiment. Those who reported high reliability for depending on their phones were found to have performed the worst during the cognitive tasks while their phones were in their pockets or bags.

The orientation of the phone – face up or face down – and whether the phone was on or off held little significance, the researchers said. Just being able to see the smartphone was enough to reduce the participants’ focus and performance due to a segment of the brain concentrating on ignoring the phone.

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“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” said Ward. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

The smartphone has transcended technology before it, the researchers said. Most technology in the past has been limited by their function and the space they inhabit, but the smartphone acts as a constant companion that gives access to unlimited amounts of information.

With a smartphone near, consumers’ cognitive capacity, including their available working memory capacity and their functional fluid intelligence, is affected. People who depend on their smartphones the most could actually benefit from a break, the researchers said.

“Those who depend most on their devices suffer the most from their salience, and benefit the most from their absence,” the researchers said.