JUL 27, 2017 4:54 AM PDT

Just Being Near Your Smartphone Can Affect Your Brain

It’s become almost required for everyone to carry around a smartphone. They seem to be everywhere and asking someone to turn it off or put it out of sight will usually induce a panicked stare and white-knuckled grip.

New research shows, however, that even having a cell phone within reach can impair cognitive abilities. It doesn’t matter if it’s turned off, if it’s still there, it could be draining your brain. That’s what researchers at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin found in their recent study.

Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and a team of researchers enlisted the help of almost 800 smartphone users (addicts?) to measure how fast tasks can be completed when a cell phone is nearby, but not being used. One of the assessments used required participants to sit at a computer terminal and complete a group of cognitive tests that required concentration in order to get a higher score. The testing measured what might be called the bandwidth of the brain, which is “available cognitive capacity.” Having enough brain power on hand to solve difficult puzzles that involve holding data in the brain for the duration and accessing it was necessary in this particular set of tasks. The study volunteers were randomly assigned to put their cell phonesface down on the desk,  away in a purse or pocket or out of the room entirely. Phones were turned to completely silent.

Test takers whose phones were in another room far outperformed those who had placed their phones on the desk. Those who had placed their phones in a bag or a pocket lagged behind those whose phones were out of sight, but not by as much. Simply having the phone adjacent to them and within their field of vision was enough to disrupt the brain’s focus and cognitive performance. Professor Ward explained, “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases. 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 a similar part of the study, the factor of how dependent users reported being on their phones was considered. In this phase, the phones that were in sight were turned completely off, instead of just silenced. Those who reported being the most dependent on their phones also did the worst on the cognitive testing. Literally, the phone didn’t even have to be on. If a test-taker could see it, it was interfering. While some might think that the pop up notifications of texts or emails is what distracts cell phone users, it’s actually attributable to having the phone simply be visible and nearby. The brains of dependent users were too busy worrying about their phone to devote full mental energy to the task at hand.

Smartphones are here to stay, but the research completed by the team at the University of Texas shows the impact even a silent, switched-off cell phone can have on cognition. Check out the video for more information.

Sources: University of Texas, Austin, Journal of the Association of Consumer Research, CNET 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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