Smartphones enrich our lives. But they may also monopolize some of our mental resources when we need them most, without us even realizing!
Smartphones enrich our lives; they connect us with others and with social media platforms. Many people take their phones everywhere they go and keep close track of every new notification. However, a recent study conducted in Texas shows that literally putting some distance between yourself and your phone improves performance on challenging tasks.
In this study, adult participants were required to perform challenging working-memory and problem-solving tasks. They were assigned to one of three experimental conditions, in which they placed their phone either 1) in sight, on their desk; 2) out of sight but close by, in their pocket or bag; or 3) in another room. Strikingly, participants whose phones were out of sight in another room performed best on the tasks, and those participants who had their phone in sight on their desk performed worst, even when the phone was face down or turned off. These results show that the presence of your smartphone may make it harder to execute a difficult mental task well.
Smartphone induced brain-drain
This effect can be explained by the idea that people have limited mental resources available at a specific moment in time. So when the participants from the study performed the tasks with their phones in sight, some of their available mental resources got distracted from the task and drawn towards their phones, resulting in suboptimal performance. This could happen in real life, for example, when you are working on a report for work, or doing homework. You need to focus fully on the task to be able to work accurately and fast. However, if your phone is near, some of your attention may implicitly be drawn towards your phone. This makes it more difficult for you to do your work effectively, because you have less attention left for it. The researchers from the study refer to this as a “smartphone induced brain-drain”. The process is an unconscious one, given that the participants reported that they had not thought about their phones during the experiment.
Put your phone away - in a different room
The researchers also found that some individuals were more susceptible to smartphone induced brain-drain than others. Participants who were most dependent on their smartphones were most affected by the phone’s location: they performed worse when their phone was in sight on the desk, and also benefited most (i.e., performed best) from their phone being in another room during the experiment. So it might be worth putting away your phone when you need all of your brain capacity, especially if you suspect you have some signs of smartphone addiction.
Be aware of the mental drainage
These findings shed an interesting light on the impact of smartphones on our daily functioning at work, school, and home. New questions can be raised, like how smartphones may affect other types of complex situations, such as face-to-face social interactions, which also require advanced social mental skills. And do these findings also apply to younger individuals like teenagers? All in all, we should embrace the advantages smartphones bring to our everyday lives, but we should also be aware of the mental drainage they may trigger.