Mobile Phones

Smartphones Dull Your Mental Performance — Even When They're Off

How often do you check your phone? (Did you just check it after reading that sentence? It's okay, we won't judge.) Those little portals to the digital universe are mighty handy, but they're also pretty distracting. A June 2017 study demonstrates just how bad it is: Your smartphone takes a cognitive toll just by being in the room with you. It doesn't even need to be powered on to do it.

You Go to My Head

For a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin asked 448 undergraduate students to take a series of tests designed to measure cognitive capacity. They included a pattern-completion exercise and a test that required them to do math problems while keeping a regularly updated sequence of letters straight. Researchers divided the test-takers into three groups and asked each to keep their phones in a different location: either face-down on the desk, in their pocket or bag ("wherever they 'naturally' would"), or in a separate room.

The results? Those with their phones in another room performed significantly better than those with their phones on their desks, and a little better than the participants with their phones in the room, but out of sight. The further away their phones were, in other words, the better their brains functioned.

A second experiment took this to another level by divvying the same three conditions into two sub-conditions: Participants kept their phones on the desk, in their pockets, or in another room, but half kept their phones powered on while the other half turned them off. Surprisingly, there was no difference in performance between having a phone turned on and turned off. Just the presence of it was enough to fog their brains.

The Digital Ball and Chain

Sure, smartphones have transformed our society, making it easier to connect with others, navigate the world, and immortalize our every memory. But that usefulness has a dark side, since it can make us dependent on their help and overconfident in our own abilities. Studies show that people use their phones an average of 85 times per day, and a 2015 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrated that just having access to a search engine makes you believe you're more knowledgeable than you really are.

So how do you kick the habit and free your mind for more important stuff? The Independent asked "digital detox" experts for their advice and summed it up in three easy methods:

  1. Set boundaries around when you use your phone. Make a rule that you don't check your phone when you're in bed, or you don't bring your phone to the dinner table.
  2. Shut off all of your notification sounds. That way, you get to check them when you want to — not when your phone comes calling.
  3. Finally, test yourself. See how long you can go without your phone. Can you get through an hour-long TV show? A trip to the grocery store? A full day at work? The more you try, the more you may find that you're not as lost without it as you thought.

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If you're ready to wean yourself off of gadgets, check out "Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World" by bestselling author Cal Newport. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer July 8, 2017

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