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13th Sep 2018

Are Smartphones Making Us Stupid?


We’ve all read the countless articles on smartphone addiction. It seems like every day another scientist concludes that we as a society are spending too much time on our mobile devices, and that these are impacting our mental and social health and overall wellbeing.

But what are they doing to our intelligence?

We often look at smartphones as harbingers of anxiety and distraction, but are they also reducing our brain power? Are smartphones making us stupid?

In this article, we examine the effect that smartphones, those magical devices, are having on our human intelligence.

Research: A Lost Art

Once upon a time, research, even simple studying, involved heading to a physical library and thumbing through endless volumes. Often, these academic tomes were heavy, even dusty with disuse. Finding the answer to a question could take ages, but there was a certain reward in sleuthing out the information you needed. With patience and diligence, the research could be successfully accomplished.

For simpler questions, you could turn to an encyclopaedia. These books were vast repositories of knowledge containing information on various subjects. You could consult them or refer to them for a quick answer or detail.

Want to learn about ancient Roman civilisation? Search out the appropriate encyclopaedia volume and find the section on ancient Rome. As you read through, you’ll absorb the information you were seeking, and likely stumble across some interesting and noteworthy facts and figures. For example, the life expectancy of an average human at the time of ancient Rome was between 20 and 30 years.

This tidbit about life expectancy, which likely would have once taken hours of research to uncover, can be found today via Google search, taking just milliseconds to return the information. Into the search bar, the term “facts about ancient Rome” leads you to this site, the first of the search engine’s relevant results. Listing 55 facts about the ancient civilisation of Rome, this article enables you to become a quick-study expert on Roman life in just a few minutes of reading. And it can all be done on your smartphone.

This example is truly a miracle. It shows how far technology has progressed, equipping us with the tools to access specific and high-level knowledge in an instant. While it is incredible that we can do such a thing (and no doubt it saves us considerable time and effort), is it entirely positive? Though anyone can share in-depth knowledge on ancient Rome from a simple Google search, how does this compare with the knowledge of one who has spent years researching a given subject? We can obtain answers from Google, but it can’t turn us into an expert. Only time and effort can do that.

There might be some downsides to the constant allure of Google...

Googley Brains

It could be argued that the human race has grown deeply dependent upon technology. With 40,000 Google searches being performed every single second, it’s clear that we’re constantly on the hunt for information, answers, and perhaps even guidance. But does our reliance on the Internet dampen our own intelligence? With information available instantaneously, we may have lost the ability to research and find answers for ourselves.

With smartphone in hand, we can have the answer we want at any given moment. Who was the actor in that episode of Lost? What year was The Thorn Birds published? And while it’s much faster to find the necessary answer on a search engine, we might be robbing our brains of the chance to dig. The details we are after are likely stored in the far reaches of our brain, but by Googling for the information, are we preventing our brains from getting a neurological workout?

One man says no. In fact, the continuous input from something like searching Google can be more beneficial in keeping our brains engaged. Dr. Richard Carmona shares that this nonstop information feed allows us to create more neural networks---which will actually help us better remember information. Of course, we should engage in multiple ways of keeping our brains sharp, and not rely on Google to be the main source of neural boosting! Crossword puzzles are just one example of brain-charging activities that people can do.

Minds Diminished by Device

It might not be dependence on Google and the availability of information that we need to worry about, however. Some research suggests that the very act of using our smartphones (or even knowing they are nearby) could have a negative impact.

A study by the University of Texas at Austin demonstrated that the physical presence of our mobile phones could limit our brain’s capacity. The study showed that our cognitive resources are limited, and the attempt to not think about something (particularly a commonly used item such as a smartphone) consumes a great portion of those mental resources.

The study involved participants taking a cognitive test while having varying degrees of separation from their mobile phones. The 1st portion of the group had their phones placed face down on the desk in front of them. The 2nd portion had their phones somewhat more removed, tucked into their pocket or placed in a bag nearby. These options were within reach, but out of sight. Finally, the third group’s smartphones were kept out of the testing space entirely, held in a separate room.

The results showed that the participants whose devices were completely separate from them revealed the best overall cognitive function. Those with their phones on the desk performed the worst, but, perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t much difference between the 1st and 2nd group. This revealed that having one’s device out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out of mind. The mere presence of their smartphones in the space with them caused enough distraction to disturb their cognitive abilities during the test.

The human brain can only process a certain amount of stimulus at a given time. With a smartphone present---even when switched off and placed out of sight--- an unconscious, involuntary attentiveness is generated. Our brains automatically look for our phones, which they’re habitually accustomed to checking regularly. (For most people, by the way, this is an average of 80 times per day). Our driving need to interact with our phone thus takes up a part of our brain’s capacity, reducing the amount left to focus on other pursuits. For the test takers, this meant that they weren’t able to prioritise their cognitive function toward the test questions, and they performed poorly. Some small part of the brain was still focused on the phone.

While this does not indicate that smartphones are making users less intelligent, it does show that their usage in our lives can cause a level of distraction that diminishes our overall mental capabilities.

The Smart of Smartphones

For the sake of balance, let’s examine the argument that smartphones actually do make us smarter. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest this could be the case.

Most apparent among its benefits, the smartphone gives us access to the full breadth and depth (or very nearly) of human knowledge. What details can we not find via the Internet? The potential to interact with so much information is astounding, and this gives a greater opportunity for all Internet users to learn on an almost endless scale. While this might not be intrinsically expanding human intelligence, the opportunity and possibility are certainly there.

By the same token, smartphone mobile apps give us the opportunity to sharpen our brains. We can participate in word games and other apps that help us think critically and analytically, and as we interact with our screens we’re building sensory processing capabilities. In other words, our sense of touch might be improving with frequent smartphone use.

Smartphones also equip us with so many additional educational resources. In this article, parents and students in China discuss how English language apps are helping them to dramatically improve their language skills. Not only are the students enjoying these fun apps, and getting good results with their English abilities, their teachers are also able to monitor their progress more easily via the mobile apps. The power of smartphones to be used as a tool for learning and growth cannot be denied.

Are Smartphones Making Us Lazy?

It seems that smartphones are not actually impacting the breadth and capacity of human intelligence on a large scale. However, what the devices may be doing is contributing to habits of laziness, dependency, and a lack of curiosity. And wasting our mental capabilities might even be worse than lacking them.

Curiosity is important. Not only is it responsible for the appearance of life-changing inventions, it also has vital personal and professional benefits such as reducing errors in decision making, improving communication skills, and even bringing more pleasure into the workday. Curiosity drives people to innovate and create.

But curiosity is also a muscle. It needs to be flexed, stretched, and exercised in order to stay active. A concern about smartphones is that they may be diminishing our innate curiosity. Instead of following our curious minds to an interesting conclusion, we can merely Google our query and bring our search to an end.

But all is not lost. Experts say that there are ways to retain our natural curiosity as we grow even when we are frequent smartphone users. One way is to follow the path of our curiosity. So you want to do a Google search for an answer? No worries. But let your curiosity lead you a bit. Digging deeper and searching for information and details beyond just a simple answer can be highly beneficial to boosting your curiosity bone.

Another way to jumpstart curiosity is to interact with others. While Google and the Internet can provide you with a massive availability of knowledge, there is no comparison for the knowledge you can glean from discussion with other people. The human mind is undoubtedly amazing. Talking about big ideas with colleagues, family, and friends will expand your mental powers in unimaginable ways, and it will definitely continue to stoke the curiosity we are all born with.

What about laziness?

Research by Canada’s University of Waterloo showed how smartphones are playing a role in increasing our mental laziness. With smartphones, we have less need to think for ourselves, able to find the answers and information we want instantaneously. The research showed that participants who displayed stronger cognitive skills were apt to spend less time on their mobile devices. Conversely, those who had weaker cognitive abilities showed a correlation with more time spent on mobile devices. This does not necessarily mean that these individuals are inherently more or less intelligent, but it indicates the effect that smartphone usage could be having.

As we tend to see phones as an ‘extension of our mind,’ it’s easy to be lazy and Google for information---even information we already know. The speed with which Google can provide an answer makes it simple to avoid doing the mental work ourselves, and instead rely on the Internet to supply it quickly and accurately. But this lack of thinking could serve to damage our cognitive abilities in the long run, failing to enhance our neuroplasticity (which begins to deteriorate as we age).

It seems that the key to this issue, as in nearly everything, is striking a balance between use and overuse. While smartphones are a wonderful invention, our brains are even more incredible, and definitely worthy of our use and attention.

What do you think? Do you feel that smartphones are making us stupid?

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