Are Smartphones Making Us Dumber?

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The smartphone is a remarkable invention. Never before have we been so connected to our friends and family. Vast stores of knowledge and answers to even the most obscure questions are instantly available with just a few swipes of our fingers. But new research shows that far from enhancing our minds, these devices are actually causing damage to our attention, memory, and ability to learn new concepts.

The problem lies in how smartphones change the way our minds allocate cognitive resources. When you concentrate intently on one specific task for a long period of time, a phenomenon informally known as being "in the zone," you devote all of your brain power to completing the task at hand. This mental state is associated with high productivity, creativity, and logical reasoning. However, when we split our attention between two different tasks at the same time, our minds are never fully focused on either one. Each task occupies a portion of our working memory, limiting the cognitive resources that can be applied.

Multitasking Mom Working at Home
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A study in 2017 at the University of Texas at Austin used smartphones to illustrate this concept. The researchers designed the experiment to measure how the presence of a smartphone affected the subjects' scores on computer-based cognitive tests. One group was instructed to keep their phones on the table during the test, while another group kept their phones in a pocket or bag. The control group kept their phone out of reach in a different room. Even though all phones were kept on silent during the test, the group that kept their phones on the table earned the poorest test scores. The researchers concluded that our phones take up cognitive capacity when they are in close proximity to us, even when they are not being used.

While this study proves that smartphones negatively impact our cognitive abilities when they are within arm's reach, it does not indicate any lasting damage to our memory. However, scientists are beginning to understand how this recent technology is rewiring the way that our brains seek and retrieve information.

Before smartphones, if we were asked a question that we did not immediately know the answer to, we would search deep into the farthest reaches of our minds to retrieve the information. This mental activity both stimulates existing neural pathways in the brain and forges new ones, allowing for fast recall of that information in the future.

However, the advent of smartphones has allowed our minds to become lazy. Why memorize dates, names, and facts when we can shift this mental burden to our digital companion? As a result, the information sharing network of neural connections in our brains becomes underused and understimulated, negatively affecting our cognitive performance when our phones cannot provide the answers we are looking for.

For this reason, we highly recommend that you make an effort to limit your use of your smartphone. Consider keeping it on silent most of the day or only checking it at designated intervals, relying instead on your brain and your senses to provide any answers or entertainment you might desire. This small change will provide the optimal environment for a clear and confident mind.



Jennifer recently retired from her career as a Certified Manual Physical Therapist to spend more time with her family. When she isn't writing about natural medicine, she enjoys practicing yoga, rock climbing, and running marathons.

Email Jennifer at [email protected].


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