Smartphones, Memory and Attention: Research Shows Helpful Tech can be a Neurological Burden

By Alison K. Lanier

There is no question that smartphones play a great role in how their users go about their day-to-day tasks. Smartphone technology determines how users record and transmit information, how quickly and easily users switch between tasks, and the access that users have to social networks and information.

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As such an invasive and invested part of their owners’ hour-to-hour existence, it is a small wonder that a sense of suspicion and hesitation has hinted its way into how researchers think about and study this tech. Neurologists and psychologists are now considering smartphones’ relationships with their owners and, more specifically, with their owners’ brains, according to an article in The New York Times. Beyond the alarmist cries that electromagnetic cellphone signals are curdling memory, are these devices, which bring a world of information to owners’ fingertips, affecting not only how they function but how they think?

Experts say it does. From memory and attention span to addiction and technology itself, the constant access to information and to dozens of apps, sites, texts, emails and calls actually pushes the brain into new habits, into new paces, and into patterns of thought that translate into behavior, according to an article in The New York Times.

Outsourcing Memory

In media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s book, “The Medium is the Message,” he said these miniaturized, portal computers are essentially an extension of their user’s central nervous system. But research indicates that constant smartphone access is not so much enhancing the function of our mind and memory as replacing it. Users now trust more and more of their neural memory functions to these externalizing tools, according to an article in Science Magazine.

A 2011 study by Columbia University’s Betsy Sparrow—and researchers from Harvard and the University of Wisconsin—call the constant contact with the web the “Google Effect.” With a smartphone in the pocket, Google—not to mention Wikipedia, YouTube and email—is no more than a finger-swipe away. With information constantly available, the exhausting time and effort of searching for information manually is a fast-fading memory. Google is “where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” Sparrow said.

The study found that when people were asked to recall facts and details—with the knowledge that they would have future access to computers—would remember where they were going to be able to get the information, rather than the information itself. The process of accessing lists of old classmates via Google’s servers is faster and easier than recalling the information from the brain’s own memory banks, according to the article in Science Magazine.

Smartphones take the case of the Google Effect to an extreme degree. Smartphone users do not have to anticipate where they will access the information later. The information is immediately at hand, without an interval of time for an attempt to recall the information from inherent memory. With such a vast, external memory to draw on, it is not surprising that users’ own memory takes a blow when that memory begins to feel superfluous.

Curtailing Attention

Two years ago, The New York Times ran a story anticipating a generation continually distracted by Facebook and texting, unable to focus, so much so that they cannot work their way through more than 43 pages of “Cat’s Cradle” in the course of a summer vacation.

It is not only teens and preteens glued to texting and social networks, adult brains are plastic too, capable of rewiring connections, patterns, and habits to suit their environment, according to an article in Live Science. The gallery of apps on any smartphone screen is a gallery of digital places to go and mental places to be. Although adult brains may not be shaping connections at the same rate as the developing brains of adolescents, adult brains still adapt to the constantly channel-changing, task-to-task technology in a similar way, according to The New York Times.

With the popularity of smartphones, the environment for adults is just as fast-paced and sporadically focused as the adolescent one in that sense. Switching from website to website or app to app creates a rapid and constant state of transition, where focus is not so much invested as scattered. It is an environment, just beyond the internet browser icon on a smartphone, which not only allows but pushes users to move faster than ever from one focus to another. Imagine sitting down to read deeply and slowly through a 10 page article, or dedicating a few hours to the old-fashioned art of getting lost in a book. Slow, deep concentration is not en vogue when information comes at 4G speeds.

An Addictive Habit

Constant proximity to Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and email can create a real, psychological addiction. Enter “Internet dependence,” when being unable to access media and social networks creates a noticeable and obstructive anxiety. After a few hours of isolation from technology, a user relying on Internet connection—either for business or social purposes—can fall behind, missing messages, updates and reminders. This practical need grows into a psychological one, according to The New York Times.

Nvate neurological google effect smartphone unplugging

One study performed by researchers at the University of Melbourne found that their subjects, in this case college students, with years of exposure to Internet use, have signs of Internet addiction. In the study, a tenth of the 173 college students tested as Internet dependent. These users’ continual need for Internet use interfered with their daily life as they lost sleep to log in, frequently checked email and neglected work to spend time online, according to The New York Times. A separate group of researchers hoping to examine the phenomenon “unplugged” for a few weeks found that, after the first waves of unease, the people involved in the study were thinking clearer and their minds were more at ease, according to The New York Times.

Imagine the difficulty of “unplugging” when the Internet is riding around in your pocket, a practical necessity as well as a psychological crutch, so it seems. The clarifying effect of “unplugging” might be nearly impossible to achieve with the unrelenting presence of a smartphone browser at your fingertips. A smartphone owner never really gets away from the web.

A Continuing Trend

In a 2010 nationwide poll by The New York Times, it was found that 30 percent of those interviewed recognized that having a cellphone on hand made focusing more difficult. Imagine the expanding impact from that initial statistic after two more years of cellphones as an almost universal American convenience and of smartphones becoming ever more prominent with their far broader menu of distractions. Many of the trends which researchers have already seen developing in memory, attention, and addiction show the potential to intensify in a similar way. With the constantly-improving generations of smartphones, users’ brains will become more and more accustomed to working with and outsourcing to these gadgets.

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