Is Your Smart Phone Making You Dumb?

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smart phone

Ever wonder what the impact is of slowly letting your smart phone do all those things you used to do back in the dark ages? You know, that unspeakable time when Crackberries, Treos and iPhones didn’t exist.

I never really thought about it until my phone ran out of juice the other day and, for the first time in a while, I was forced to do a bunch of the things my phone usually does…and I kind of stunk at them in a way I never did before smart phones came along.

I actually had to write down a simple list of items to buy…and I had trouble remembering them without referring back to the list multiple times. And, I’m fairly certain that, pre-Blackberry, I could have easily remembered them. Of course, I don’t know for sure because my memory of those days are a bit fuzzy. That got me wondering…

What happens to your brain when you transfer simple life-management tasks to your phone?

The four big items on my list include:

  • To do items
  • Telephone numbers and contact info (including my own)
  • Schedule items
  • Concept capture – recording ideas

Turns out, the human brain needs to be worked out to stay fit. And, while punching all these tasks into set it and forget it digital form may make managing a hectic life easier, in another way…

It may actually drain your brain long term.

Because the brain needs to be “exercised” or used on a daily basis in order to preserve optimal function. Similar to muscles in the body, certain processing abilities begin to literally atrophy with time if not engaged.

So, transferring much of these simple processing and memorization tasks away from the brain and into smartphones may actually have a backlash effect on your brain function. It may play a role in a longer term inability to effectively handle these functions without your hand-dandy smart phone at your side.

Relying too much on your smartphone may actually make you dumber…or at least temporarily dumb

Speaking to this phenomenon, a cottage industry of brain exercise programs has risen, letting you visit certain websites or even play brain games on the Nintendo DS as a way to stimulate the brain into becoming more active and preserving optimal function. These games are actually fun, though the jury is out on how effective they are.

But, for me, a different approach was in order.

I’ve taken to pulling back a bit on my reliance on technology as a replacement for thinking and remembering.

I’ve been writing things down by hand more, whether it’s a simple list or thoughts and ideas I’d like to revisit or explore more and committing to being more present as I do so. I’ve been taking the time to use certain memorization tools that stimulate, rather than turn off my brain. I’ve been spending more time in deliberate contemplation and problem solving.

And, while I still love the conversational ability my smartphone provides, I’ve been spending less time relying on it to as a replacement for my brain.

FYI – One of the brain-building factors that has been emerging in recent research is physical exercise, I’ll be writing about that in more detail very soon.

What about you?

Have you noticed any similar symptons of smartphone brain drain?

What have you explored as a fix?

And, most importantly…oh man, I forgot my last question!

Let’s discuss…

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20 responses

20 responses to “Is Your Smart Phone Making You Dumb?”

  1. […] Go to the author’s original blog: Is Your Smart Phone Making You Stupid? […]

  2. I agree with the thoughts, hold on, while I reread the post to be sure I agree. I can’t remember all the points.

    It is amazing to me that technology is supposed to make life easier, maybe that’s because if you’re a bit dumber, there’s less to comprehend, therefore happier?

  3. Steve Kinney says:

    To an extent, I found that I’ve needed to move many more activities away from the computer in order to be productive. For example: writing. I struggle with drafting on my MacBook. It’s took easy to edit and it’s too easy to get distracted. Even little distractions hurt (e.g. a little tweet here or there that I think I’m ignoring, but is still vying for my attention). On top of that, being able to research anything at the drop of a hat dissuades me from critical thinking (or even thinking about whether or not the topic is important enough to go off and research).

    On the other hand, I think that our brains are getting plenty of exercise. We are seeking out new and interesting ideas and sharing and discussing them on a regular basis. The amount of information that we are carrying around has increased substantially – I believe. This larger bank of information allows us to make sense of information more quickly and easily.

    James Flynn (Malcolm Gladwell did a great write-up of him lately) found that many IQ tests (and their equivalents) have required revision over the last few years to account for rising IQs (I believe it was .3 points every year and 8 points every generation, but don’t quote me). His reasoning was not that our parents and past generations were less intelligent, but that the rise in popularity of the scientific method has caused us to think in ways that are more objective and consequently cause us to score better on IQ tests. In other words, we are not more intelligent, but we handle the information we receive much better.

    I think that we might see another rise in IQ scores (causing for further revision of tests like the WISC) over the next few generation as a result in another major shift in the way that we deal with information. Think about “tagging” versus traditional filing and sorting. An idea, webpage, photo, blog post can be tagged into multiple categories not just tucked away into one physical folder.

  4. I don’t have a Smart Phone, and I’m really not sure I want one; however, I experienced something similar when a thunderstorm partially knocked out my electricity for a few hours. Part of my apartment had electricity, but I had no Internet and no cable, so I had to make a decision: fold laundry, or play solitaire on my laptop. I chose the latter.

    What is it about glowing screens? It’s like we’ve gone back to the days when cavemen discovered fire.

  5. Tom says:

    My grandfather, who will be 100 in January, is in great shape for his age. We attribute a lot of that to his writing, by hand, anywhere from 5 to 10 letters a day, every day, to his family, friends, clients, etc. And he continued this every day well into his 90s. Of course, he can’t operate a cell phone, much less a computer, but I don’t know that he’s missed all that much in his life because of it.

  6. Shama Hyder says:

    Yup. I didn’t enjoy my Tmobile MDA. It felt like a ball and chain.

    Now, I keep a journal to jot down thoughts and still use Outlook for “digital organization.”

  7. Very interesting points.
    @ Steve: Thanks for reference to James Flynn. I’ll check him out. What you suggest is that Jonathan may be right that we are increasingly device dependent but also that this dependence frees us up to expand our mental potential in other ways. Kind of like we are dependent on cars but the mobility they provide has greatly expanded our reach.
    @ Jonathan: This just proves your point about dependence but how do you “concept capture” on your device? I can’t figure out how to simply record on my blackberry…
    Happy 4th everyone.

  8. Laurie says:

    My new phone hasn’t made me more dumb but only because I havn’t figured out how to use it yet. :O)

    I think it’s funny how technology was suppose to make us a paperless society and we use more paper now than ever!

  9. Sorry, complete opposite of most comments.

    I’ve been using PDAs for the last 4 years and felt way more unproductive before I started using them which is what prompted me to use them.

    I have a digitial notebook in my smartphone, everything I need or want is there. I’ve got a few key third-party applications that assist with this beyond what is offered in Windows Mobile.

    However, I do agree trying to do very much writing on my desktop leads to wasted time and missed opportunities. It’s the connectivity that is the killer since I know wasted time is just a mouse click away.

    I can check my e-mail again even though I just checked it a moment ago. I check or keep up with way too many blogs and websites for news and “information” that titilates instead of informs or leads to serious productivity. RSS feeds get read right away in case I’m “missing” something. Then I check my e-mail AGAIN and the process starts all over.

    I use my Tablet PC and make sure to keep the Wifi in the off position since this allows me to write, plan, strategize, think digitally without the distractions.

    My smart phone handles the same job. Unless I get a phone call, my phone is a dead zone for loss productivity. I cancelled my data plan and have just voice and text. I don’t get many calls or text messages so I am free when I need to jot something down, make a list, capture thoughts, to use my phone. Third party apps come in handy.

    Then everything sync-able gets synced to Outlook (or the desktop client of the third party app) on my desktop as a repository. Then I’m okay with wasting time surfing while my phone dumps/syncs the data 😉

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ everyone – great comments, as always gang, a couple of additional thoughts.

    I am actually not saying we should all give up on technology. I love technology and depend on it to get a ton done every day.

    My question really goes to the hidden impact of reducing our cognitive workload over a period of years, especially with regard to fundamental processes, creativity and memory.

    @ Scott – re your question about concept capture, I actually do it two ways. One is to just write a memo, the other, a more recent exploration, is a service called http://www.jott.com that lets you call in any thought, even a longer memo and they’ll then send it to you, post it for you or send it to friends for free. It’s actually great when you’re caught with nothing to record an idea but a basic cell phone

    @ Aaron – thanks for sharing your processes, I completely agree that technology can make you immensely more productive, it sure makes me. What

    I am talking about, though, is not productivity, but rather fundamental brain function over time, from memorization to creativity to the ability to handle complex processes, calculations and solve problems. You ability to do this requires you engage these processing “muscles” on a regular basis and I wonder whether technology is taking away some of that workout

  11. Steve Kinney says:

    Another thought occurred to me: I think that it is safe to say that we all read a whole lot more thanks to technology. It’s an improvement over television, certainly.

  12. Hi Jonathan! I’ve postponed getting a smartphone for a different reason: I don’t want to spend every waking hour checking my work email 🙂 But any phone kind of affects us: if my phone dies on me and I have an emergency, other than 112 (the local 911) I can’t remember any other number. But I guess the police won’t help if I forgot something at home and desperately needed, they won’t tell my mom I’ll be late because of traffic when visiting her, not because something bad happened etc. I used to know a lot of phone numbers by heart. No I rely on my phone and am helpless without it.

  13. I think the whole point of having technology work for us is so we can mentally move on to bigger and better things.

    Like in Star Trek; if all of the mundane task are handled, we should then be able to devote our brain power to “higher” goals and bigger thoughts.

    It’s the same argument used for the industrial revolution, mechanizing task were supposed to free our minds for greater things. By letting machines handle the routine, we were supposed to be free for great feats of creativity and usefullness.

    ‘Course, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way since most people are hard pressed to figure out anything useful, important or productive to do with all of that free time and free mental space. 😉

  14. […] Jonathan Fields has brought an interesting question to my (and your) attention: are smartphones actually making us dumber? It appears they are. I for one, if deprived of my phone, would be unable to contact any of my relatives or close friends. […]

  15. Justin says:

    I don’t know why, but I am kind of spiteful toward today’s rising technology. I think it makes things too simple, and you’re right, it is not good for our brains. That’s a good idea, to write down things with your hand instead of typing. That’s also a great thing to do because you remember things you write better.

  16. Dana Seilhan says:

    It makes sense. I know I’ve read things over the years about the difference in mental processing capability between people from oral cultures and people from literate cultures–if you have to remember the story to pass it down, you remember things a lot better. Whereas if you write the information down and externalize it to paper, there’s no need to remember it. So it makes sense that using electronic data storage devices has a similar effect.

    But I already get ditzy and forget stuff if I don’t write it down. Still, it’s probably better to write it out on paper in case my electronic device suffers a glitch…

  17. I can’t remember what I am supposed to comment on.

  18. Although I don’t know the answer to whether smart phones make people dumber… I’ve always wondered whether they make people more or less social. On the one hand, you’re constantly connected to everyone, answering emails 24/7/365, blogging when any thought pops into your mind, etc. On the other hand, how often do people find themselves out at the bar with friends, sending emails and ignoring the real conversation right in front of them? Or, whats the point of going to a ballgame or a concert with friends if you’re just going to work the entire time?

  19. Peter Kwok says:

    I agree with Aaron’s comments that these devices and technology are suppose to free us from the simple mundane tasks so we can reserve our energy and brainpower to wrestle with concepts and creating new ideas. I think that having technology handle the simple tasks (to-do list, phone numbers, the big 4 Jonathan mentioned) isn’t a bad thing because they probably didn’t enhance your brain beyond that particular skill (i.e memorizing phone numbers makes you better at memorizing 3-3-4 number sequences)and they take up your mental RAM (David Allen uses a term like that)

    Many have touched on it but I agree technology has opened us up to a lot more information and stimulating ideas so there is potential to make us smarter… however most are stuck in a cycle of devoting attention and focus to “instant stuff” (checking email, blog updates, twitter, etc)

    One thing I was thinking about was writing by hand. I think there is a unique feel and experience you get from writing by hand that is different from the keyboard. Maybe the slower speed and having to coordinate each curve and line in your brain triggers something different… but there does seem to be a deeper connection with your thoughts when writing on paper.

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