Why Just Having Your Phone Near You Messes With Your Brain
Arianna Huffington and her team at wellness company Thrive Global might’ve been onto something when they put a mini “Phone Bed” up for sale designed to separate people from their devices while they sleep.
A recent study by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, San Diego and Disney Research sought to determine how just having your smartphone near you, even if you aren’t looking at it or using it, can affect you cognitively.
The team conducted two lab experiments with 800 participants. In one, participants completed math problems while memorizing random letters, to test their capacity to keep track of information while engaging in a complex task. In the other, the researchers presented participants with incomplete image patterns and asked them to select from a set of images to complete each pattern, which tested reasoning and problem-solving.
The researchers asked some participants to turn off their phone’s sound and vibration notifications, and some to power off their phones. They then divided the participants, asking some to place their phones in front of them, face-down, others to stow their phones in their pockets or bags and others yet to keep them in another room during the experiments. The participants who performed best on the tasks were of the latter group, followed by the ones who stowed their devices. The worst performers were the ones whose phones were on their desks during the tasks.
“Merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their findings in Harvard Business Review, “on par with effects of lacking sleep.” Participants’ whose phones were nearby displayed a diminished ability to learn, reason and develop creative ideas.
As for why this happens, the researchers explain that “humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task.” This is why your ears perk up when you hear someone say your name across the room, for example, even while you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone else. When you try to ignore the pull of your smartphone, you’re expending effort to suppress this urge, which is a distraction that makes you think less effectively.
The researchers also found that participants who identified with statements such as, “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” performed even more poorly than their less-addicted counterparts on tasks when their phones were in close proximity.
There’s plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence to prove that smartphones are detrimental to our health and well being. They’re anxiety inducing, cause car accidents and distract us from work and social bonding. But that doesn’t mean they’re inherently bad. Smartphones, of course, add efficiency, convenience and connectivity to our lives.
So keep using your smartphone, the researchers advise. Just carve out times to separate yourself from it when you need to focus.Related video: Be Smart About Writing Off Your Smartphone During Tax Time