2 Ways Your Phone Is Reducing Your Brain Power

2 Ways Your Phone Is Reducing Your Brain PowerThese days, the typical person allocates an astonishing chunk of their lives to consuming media from an electronic device. According to Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report, American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or interacting with media in some way. When the phone usage habits of 11,000 people were tabulated, individuals spent three hours and 15 minutes on their phones per day on average. A recent Deloitte survey found the average American checks their phone a whopping 47 times a day. (I can easily see me doing that.) Ever wonder what all that screen time is doing to your brain? The new is not good.

Staring at a Screen is Changing Your Brain (for the worse) 

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, excessive screen time is physically changing your brain – for the worse. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to change both form and function due to input, when a human focuses their vision on the area right in front of their nose repeatedly for hours a day, their brain makes adjustments accordingly.

The survival of the human species was dependent on the ability to see and respond quickly to events as they happened in the environment all around a person. For this reason, your brain is programmed to see from ear-to-ear. Information coming from your eyes gets interpreted and turned into action primarily in your brain’s frontal lobe.

The frontal lobe of the brain is basically your humanness. It controls your executive functioning and intelligence, as well as other capabilities, including speech, memory, some mobility, personality, and more. Unfortunately, it is your frontal lobe that is taking the biggest hit from staring at a screen.

Your View of the World Is Literally Shrinking

Visual activities where you continuously focus straight ahead, such as looking at a screen or even driving, narrow your field of vision to a small box-like zone right in front of your eyes. Your brain learns to categorize everything outside of this box as a distraction – not worthy of your attention. Your brain is a very efficient learner. It gets good at filtering out anything not right in front of you. By developing such sustained attention in the central view, your peripheral vision suffers, and your view of the world slowly gets smaller.

The field of view in humans decreases with age anyway. Over time, a person becomes more and more immune to noticing life’s visual details, and their eyes move less often. As a result of these natural and self-induced neurological changes, our brains and bodies get conditioned to not pay attention and not react to our environments. In other words, your brain learns to label most everything as uninteresting and unimportant.

Your view of the world is literally shrinking.Click To Tweet

Could This Be Contributing to Depression?

Having a brain that does this can lead to a flat, dull existence. Feeling little emotion, loss of interest, and apathy, called anhedonia, are symptoms of depression and can be linked to variations in frontal lobe activity. Depression is growing faster among teens and young adults, who are the highest cell phone users. Coincidence?

I couldn’t find any research numbers on this specific hypothesis, but I’m guessing that it would be correlated. In fact, many experts are debating whether smartphones, tablet computers, and social media are responsible for the rising rates of depression among children and young adults. Of course, there are many factors contributing to increasing teen depression, and cell phone use is most certainly one of them.

It’s as if we’re training our brains not to notice the world and life happening around us. Sounds a lot like depression to me. Our brains and lives are invigorated and nourished by paying attention and being mindful of our experiences and environments. You can imagine the negative impact this narrowing field of vision has on physical activities, but there are broader implications. By living in a smaller visual box, we are teaching our brains to literally dim the brightness of our lives.

2 Ways Your Phone Is Reducing Your Brain Power

Just the Sight of Your Phone Decreases Your Brain Power

Amazingly, science is showing that your phone reduces your brain power just by being present. You don’t have to be using the phone, and it doesn’t have to be dinging a notification. It just has to be there. Study results published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that the mere presence of a smartphone can distract you by diminishing your attention span and cognitive ability. The research concludes that the more attached you are to your phone, the greater the “cognitive smartphone tax”. One study, Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity, explained it this way:

Our smartphones enable—and encourage—constant connection to information, entertainment, and each other. They put the world at our fingertips, and rarely leave our sides. Although these devices have immense potential to improve welfare, their persistent presence may come at a cognitive cost. In this research, we test the ‘brain drain’ hypothesis that the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance. Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence.”

Your Attentional Resources Are Limited

Your ability to pay attention is a limited resource and is much smaller than you might think. Because of this, much of your world goes unattended and unnoticed most of the time. You’re simply inattentionally blind to it. So, your brain learns to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to it – like your name.

Even when you’re focused on a different task, your ears perk up whenever you hear your name because your brain subconsciously notices and diverts attention to it. The same thing is happening with your phone. Additionally, when you try to ignore the pull of your smartphone, you’re expending mental effort to suppress the urge. This is also a distraction that makes you think less effectively.

Just having your phone in sight reduces attention and cognitive ability.Click To Tweet

Your Phone Makes You Less Capable, But You’re Not Aware of It

The data clearly shows that our ability to perform erodes if our phones are nearby. However, we don’t recognize the degradation of performance. In other words, research shows that we think we aren’t affected by our phones being around, but we are. In this way, mobile phones are similar to drunk driving or texting while driving. You think you can do it without consequence but aren’t aware that your ability is impaired until it impacts you negatively.

Here’s What You Can Do

Terry Small, B.Ed., M.A., gives the following advice in his Brain Bulletin 108: A Surprisingly Easy Way to Reduce Our Brain Power by 25%:

We are left with the conclusion that constant connectivity throughout the day is a continual source of interruption and distraction even when we are not using our phones. It affects our ability to maintain attention density, and to think deeply about other things. I don’t think anyone can tell you what to do about this. Everyone is different, and you do have to make your life work. I can tell you what I’ve started doing:

As much as possible, I put my phone out of sight. Usually in another room. This has helped my focus a lot.
I don’t have social media apps on my phone. I only check social media from my computer.
My phone is not in the room when I sleep. I use an old-fashioned alarm clock. When it’s important, I set two clocks.
I don’t give out my cell phone number. All my business correspondence is done by email. My cell phone number just goes to family, and a few close friends. This simplifies things a lot.

These strategies won’t work for everyone, but they may get you thinking. Here’s one more thing to think about: A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that just the presence of a cell phone can influence the quality of face-to-face conversations. When a phone was present, and the couple wasn’t using it, they reported lower relationship quality, diminished empathy, and less trust.

I would add that when my phone is out, it affects my ability to listen.”

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