A new report from The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity provides confirmation of what many of us have been increasingly feeling. We’re losing our minds….to our smartphones.
Researchers studied the hypothesis that smartphones are producing dumb humans and found that even the presence of a phone (not using it, just its physical presence) diminishes cognitive resources and performance. That means that even if it’s on our desk while we’re studying, it puts a hole in our brain.
Basically, even when we win the battle not to use our phone, that battle is draining significant intellectual resources from our task. The fact that our phones are the source of so many satisfying stimuli creates a stronger gravitational pull than, say, having a book on our desks. So, even if we’re not using it, attentional resources are being used up in resisting its pull.
Together, these investigations of phone-related distractions provide evidence that mobile devices can adversely affect cognitive performance even when consumers are not actively using them.
A visible cellphone can impair performance on tasks requiring sustained attention by eliciting awareness of the “broad social and informational network … that one is not part of at the moment.
While most of us are aware of the performance deficits in driving and education due to interaction with digital devices, the idea that even the presence of an ignored or unused phone drains our brains is new to most of us.
The research also found that individuals who most depend on their phones will suffer the most from their presence—and benefit the most from their absence.
Tactics and Fixes
The researchers briefly addressed tactics to mitigate this brain drain and found that intuitive “fixes” such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are futile.
The data did suggest one simple solution that actually worked: planned separation. Although previous research had found that being separated from one’s phone undermines performance by increasing anxiety, participants in these past studies were unexpectedly separated from their phones and forced to hear them ring while being unable to answer.
In contrast, participants in the current experiments expected to be separated from their phones and were not confronted with unanswerable notifications or calls while separated.
Researchers concluded that defined and protected periods of separation may allow consumers to perform better not just by reducing interruptions but also by increasing available cognitive capacity.
They also found that dumbphones (stripped-down basic devices) made people smarter in that they did not create the same gravitational pull or drain on mental resources.
Obviously, this research has implications for the workplace, for relationships, and for education. Noting the dependence of young adults on their smartphones, the researchers note:
Given that many of them are in school, the potential detrimental effects of smartphones on their cognitive functioning may have an outsized effect on long-term welfare. As educational institutions increasingly embrace “connected classrooms,” the presence of students’ mobile devices in educational environments may undermine both learning and test performance—particularly when these devices are present but not in use. Future research could focus on how children, adolescents, and young adults are affected by the mere presence of personally relevant technologies in the classroom.
However, it also has implications for personal devotions and public worship. It’s not just using a digital device in these spiritual activities that can retard spiritual growth. The mere presence of an unused phone is not only draining our brains but damaging our connection with God.
I have sensed this for a while now, which is why I take the following steps:
1. I put my phone in airplane mode during public worship and do not use it to take notes.
2. I put my phone in airplane mode during my personal devotions and put it far enough away from me that I cannot reach it without making a special effort.
But on the basis of this research, from now on I will also ensure “planned separation” from my phone during study times.
And, yes, students, I’m afraid this just confirms my general policy of banning digital devices from the classroom. It’s for your good!