The mere presence of your phone is a ‘brain drain’: study

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Anna Brech
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We’re well aware that mobiles phones aren’t exactly a shining beacon of wellbeing and happiness. Yet – like an unhealthy relationship we just can’t quit – we use them more compulsively than ever.

One in ten of us checks our phone as soon as we wake up in the morning, and a staggering 30% do so in the middle of the night. 

A third of Brits argue with their partners over phone use, a tenth of us tune in during meal-times and the majority of us spend over three hours a day scrolling, messaging and monitoring.

No wonder they’re a barrier to intimacy, that distract us from real-life events and relationships.

And now, as well as triggering stress and sleep disturbances, a new study has found that mobile phones can make us less intelligent just by looking at them.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that phones work to erode our cognitive function, even when they’re switched off.

Professor Adrian Ward and his team asked 800 participants to take a computer test that demanded “full concentration in order to score well”. Tasks involved mathematics, memory and reasoning skills.

In the first session, volunteers were randomly told to either put smartphones on the desk face down, in their pocket or bag, or in another room. All were instructed to put their phones on silent.

Those who had their phones in another room significantly performed everyone else, including those who had phones in their bags or pockets.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” says Ward, in the study published in ScienceDaily this week.

“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.

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

The researchers repeated the experiment with a different group of volunteers, but asked them to rate their dependence on their phones beforehand.

Again, participants were randomly instructed to put their phones face down, in a bag or next door – all on silent.

Those who reported having a high dependency on their phones scored worse than others in the concentration test; except when their phone was in another room.

“Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost,” warns Prof. Ward.

He suggests that planned periods of separation from your phone throughout the day “may allow consumers to perform better not just by reducing interruptions but also by increasing available cognitive capacity”.

We’ll bear that in mind next time we have to tackle our tax returns...

Main photo: iStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.