Just the Sight of Your Phone Decreases Your Brain Power

Amazingly, science is showing that your phone reduces your brain power just by being present. You don’t have to be using the phone, and it doesn’t have to be dinging a notification. It just has to be there. Study results published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that the mere presence of a smartphone can distract you by diminishing your attention span and cognitive ability. The research concludes that the more attached you are to your phone, the greater the “cognitive smartphone tax”. One study, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, explained it this way:
Our smartphones enable—and encourage—constant connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides. Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost. In this research, we test the ‘brain drain’ hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance. Results from two experiments indicate that 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. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence.”

Your Attentional Resources Are Limited

Your ability to pay attention is a limited resource and is much smaller than you might think. Because of this, much of your world goes unattended and unnoticed most of the time. You’re simply inattentionally blind to it. So, your brain learns to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to it – like your name.

Even when you’re focused on a different task, your ears perk up whenever you hear your name because your brain subconsciously notices and diverts attention to it. The same thing is happening with your phone. Additionally, when you try to ignore the pull of your smartphone, you’re expending mental effort to suppress the urge. This is also a distraction that makes you think less effectively.

Your Phone Makes You Less Capable, But You’re Not Aware of It

The data clearly shows that our ability to perform erodes if our phones are nearby. However, we don’t recognize the degradation of performance. In other words, research shows that we think we aren’t affected by our phones being around, but we are. In this way, mobile phones are similar to drunk driving or texting while driving. You think you can do it without consequence but aren’t aware that your ability is impaired until it impacts you negatively.

Here’s What You Can Do

Terry Small, B.Ed., M.A., gives the following advice in his Brain Bulletin 108: A Surprisingly Easy Way to Reduce Our Brain Power by 25%:
We are left with the conclusion that constant connectivity throughout the day is a continual source of interruption and distraction even when we are not using our phones. It affects our ability to maintain attention density, and to think deeply about other things. I don’t think anyone can tell you what to do about this. Everyone is different, and you do have to make your life work. I can tell you what I’ve started doing:
  • As much as possible, I put my phone out of sight. Usually in another room. This has helped my focus a lot.
  • I don’t have social media apps on my phone. I only check social media from my computer.
  • My phone is not in the room when I sleep. I use an old-fashioned alarm clock. When it’s important, I set two clocks.
  • I don’t give out my cell phone number. All my business correspondence is done by email. My cell phone number just goes to family, and a few close friends. This simplifies things a lot.
These strategies won’t work for everyone, but they may get you thinking. Here’s one more thing to think about: A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that just the presence of a cell phone can influence the quality of face-to-face conversations. When a phone was present, and the couple wasn’t using it, they reported lower relationship quality, diminished empathy, and less trust.
I would add that when my phone is out, it affects my ability to listen.”

8 Comments

  1. What an interesting read Debbie…it makes me glad that I seem to be the one person in the family who frequently leaves her phone at home. Not deliberately, but because I forgot to pick it up! And I really don’t mind one bit.

    It’s great to know that I’m in good company with Terry Small, having no phones in the bedroom, no phones near me during the day (mostly so I have to get up out of my chair to respond) and I’m only on social media via my computer. Oh yes and only my friends and family have my number!

    • Good for you, Elle. You sond like me. I feel time away from anything digital is freedom! 🙂

  2. Donna Rubinetti Reply

    Thank you for this, Debbie. I feel so old fashioned, but, I miss the old days before the bombardment of electronics. I believe that smartphones add to the feeling of alienation and isolation. Whatever happened to face to face conversation?

    • I hear ya! I think there is room for both, but people have to realize this and make the effort to achieve some balance. It annoys me to no end for someone to have their attention glued to their phone when they are with me. And, it’s not just the youngsters who do it! 😮

  3. Very interesting. I don’t use my phone so much, except I use it to watch Netflix sometimes. Yikes! Because of my limited internet access, I can’t use a bigger screen.

  4. Such a valuable reminder, Debbie! These days everyone has numerous devices to run their lives. Phones are definitely dulling our brains. I remember how I used to remember all the phone numbers I called regularly–but now, I sometimes have to think twice to recall my own number. Social media is another thing that’s damaging our minds in more ways than changing our brains. It is also the cause for teen depression most of the time. All that FOMO rules their lives and it is so sad. It breaks my heart to see some parents using smartphones to babysit their kids when they should really be playing outdoors.

    Wonderful post. I am so glad I am not addicted to my phone. Of course, I am sometimes guilty of bingeing on a showl

    • Vidya,

      I’m with you. I’m glad that I grew up without a smartphone in my hand. It definitely brings some benefits but also some deficits. It’s like anything else in life. One must achieve balance. I think the kids are still trying o figure that one out. There is no doubt in my mind that they contribute largely to depression.

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