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Biology, Learning, Psychology, Uncategorized

My cell phone reduces my brain power

I’m waiting to get a surgery date for my wrist (for anyone counting that will technically be the fifth); as a result, I have my cell phone with me all the time. It sits out on my desk at work, even in meetings, and everyone understands that I will answer my phone if the doctor calls. This drives me insane. It’s always there, staring at me. I’d like to just put it in my bag and forget it. And let’s not even talk about what happens when I actually have a few minutes in the evenings that aren’t scheduled, then the phone isn’t just out, it’s in my hand, and yes, at this time I can’t blame waiting for a call from the surgeon.

I’ve been working on this dependence. There isn’t much I can do about waiting for the call about surgery, but do I need it out the rest of the time? Definitely not. Can I convince my brain of that?

Well, I now have an extra reason to move away from my phone. A recent study found that having your phone within reach, whether it was on or off, reduced the cognitive capacity of participants. Why, you might ask, because your brain has to spend effort on not paying attention to your phone. Which means, I’m probably really hooped as I am spending effort on paying attention to my phone, but only in the background.

So, what does this mean exactly? Your brain has to select which information it is going to pay attention to. This is important. When I’m sitting safely at my desk I don’t need to know what the traffic outside is doing, but when I’m crossing the street outside I better know what the traffic is doing. This brings us to automatic attention.

Have you ever been sitting in a busy restaurant, or had the tv but you weren’t really paying attention, when you suddenly tune in to something that is happening? It’s not that the event or conversation is inherently interesting (it’s not when the server drops the tray of dishes), it’s that whatever you suddenly tuned into relates to one of your current goals – it’s relevant to you. Automatic attention will also tune us into things that are physically near us (which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, things that are closer to us should be paid attention to first). Our phones fit into both of these categories on a regular basis. It is often part of our current goals, and it is often close at hand. This means we automatically pay attention to it, to the detriment of whatever we are supposed to be doing.

Funny enough, because I work in an open office, I have to have my phone on silent, which means it needs to be either in front of me or physically touching me for me to know it is ringing. I wonder, if I was able to turn the ringer on if I would be better able to let the phone go during the day? All the phones in the study were turned off or to silent. I would be very interested to see it done again when the phones were elsewhere but had the ringer on. Would this help with cognitive capacity, keep it the same, or make it worse?


Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2). Retrieved from http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/691462

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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