Sitting at a café five years ago, Adrian Ward and Maarten Bos suddenly realized they were completely absorbed in their smartphones. “We both noticed it at the same time. Why were we so focused on our screens when we could’ve been sharing a moment as friends?” remembers Ward, adjunct professor at the University of Texas with a PhD in psychology. “We thought if our phones were taking up so much of our attention, our brains must be aware of it, and they might be taking up some of our cognitive resources.”
The two researchers led a study in 2017 showing just that. Entitled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” the study looks at how the brain’s attention works. “There are some things we choose to pay attention to and others that our brain is automatically attracted to, like our first name for example,” Ward says. It’s called the “cocktail party effect,” or our ability to focus on a single conversation amid a noisy crowd while simultaneously remaining attentive and responsive to our first name when someone says it from across the room.
“We’ve given our smartphones a really privileged place in our lives. We’re as attuned to our ringtones as we are to our names,” Ward says. It’s a theory backed up by neuroscience, since the part of our brain activated by hearing our name is the same one responding to our ringtones. Even if we’re not using our cell phone, as long as it’s nearby our brain will automatically want to pay attention to it. “We end up using extra resources to not be distracted by our smartphone,” he says.
Our cognitive capacity, then, ends up being reduced, since we then have fewer mental resources to devote to other tasks. This in turn impacts our working intelligence and fluid intelligence. The first refers to a person’s short-term memory, or what lets us retain and manipulate information for a few minutes in order to accomplish a specific task. Fluid intelligence refers to our capacities for reasoning, analysis and logic.
The power that smartphones have over us isn’t a coincidence; their creators knew how to adapt phones to our brains’ function. “Every human being has a kind of alert system that is sensitive to anything that could potentially be dangerous or that is salient in our environment, like a ringtone,” says Nawal Abboub, neuroscientists and scientific director at Rising Up. That function applies to other technologies as well.
“The case of the smartphone is particularly revelatory because it gives us access to everything constantly. That’s what gives it so much power,” Ward says. “But regardless of the medium, any technology that demands people’s attention can potentially become problematic.”
Test it out: if you’re working on your computer and you’ve left the TV on mute, you’re instinctively going to raise your eyes when you hear someone speaking loudly or if you notice a flash of color. “That grabs our attention and affects our working memory. We lose energy and time,” Abboub says.
It works with music as well. Listening to a song you don’t know very well interferes with your work, for example. “The power to anchor knowledge is diminished. We don’t retain information as well, and we have more problems mobilizing knowledge later on,” the neuroscientist explains, who encourages people to choose music with no words or songs in foreign languages.
Although it’s important to understand our attention system for managing it in digital settings, it’s equally important to understand the way our brain processes information. “It does things one by one,” the expert says. “It processes everything in a series, not in parallel like a computer.” For example, if you receive a text message during a meeting and read it, you’ll lose focus on whatever your colleague is saying. Your brain’s attention is fixed on reading the message.
“These attention switches that we’re always performing affect our cognitive function and capacity. They can tire someone out really quickly, like when you spend an afternoon responding to emails, texts and WhatsApp messages,” Abboub says. “When there are a lot of switches, we’re talking about extreme multitasking: everything is controlled by our environment. That’s when we start having significant consequences on our cognitive capacities, particularly with memory, but also with our anxiety levels. We use up a lot of mental energy, and that affects our daily productivity.”
This extreme multitasking makes sense once you realize that our brain possesses a mechanism that automatically seeks out novelty. “We’re programmed to explore our environment,” the expert says. “We’re highly sensitive to sniffing out new information, because that activates the reward circuit and makes us feel pleasure.”
This exploring came come as either clicking on a Facebook notification or reading a friend’s message. “That activates the system and associates the object with the potential for getting a reward,” Abboub says. “For example, when we’re expecting a response from a person we care about, we tend to check more often, to the point of barely taking our eyes off our phone.”
That expectation isn’t limited to digital objects. The neuroscientist compares it with receiving mail in pre-Internet time. “Every Wednesday, I knew I was going to get my J’aime lire magazine, and the mere idea of pulling it out of the mailbox was a pleasure,” she says.
When this exchange is unregulated, the reward system can give rise to addictions. Although screen addiction isn’t (yet) recognized as a medical pathology, in June the World Health Organization acknowledged video game addiction as an illness. “Gaming disorder” is now in the literature. The illness claims a number of victims, including a 32-year-old Taiwanese person who died following a three-day gaming marathon. The smartphone has its own syndrome, that of the ghost vibration, or the feeling of your smartphone vibrating when in reality it isn’t.
“In the same way, if someone goes out without their phone, they’re going to think about it,” Ward says. “Studies show that if you take a person’s smartphone away, they get anxious and become less productive.” The researcher sees the experience as an exercise and is trying to “sever” himself more and more from his smartphone. For the seriously addicted, though, the task would be more daunting.
“Excessive digital consumption has its consequences,” Abboub says. “Really violent games increase our level of anxiety, as does excessive screen usage, which can also cause stress and mental fatigue. Recent studies have even shown that Facebook might have an impact on our self-worth and our level of frustration, and can then have negative effects on our mental states.”
However, no scientific research has yet shown that excessive screen use can have problematic effects on an adult in the long term. “The short-term effects we’ve discovered with our study aren’t that bad. Nobody is going to become a drooling idiot because they spent too much time on their smartphone,” Ward says with a laugh.
For children, though, it’s another story. “Our brain is programmed to develop language, but if we don’t receive this signal early on, that ability can be lost and never recovered,” Abboub says. “When learning one’s own language, the more a child immerses in a rich linguistic environment, the better their language skills will become.” As a result, leaving a child all day long with a screen, without any other interaction, could seriously impact their development – both in the short- and long-term.
In a small way, technologies necessarily reshape our brains. “With the phenomenon of cerebral plasticity that we all have, it’s constantly changing from one second to another,” the neuroscientist says. “Micro-changes come about following our experiences. Our circuits are continually adapting to their environment.” For example, if someone moves from the 13thto the 20tharrondissement in Paris, their brain will adapt by relearning to move and evolve in a new environment.
Opening the doors
Ideally, everyone understands the brain’s function and manages their digital activities by finding the strategy that works best for them. With her scientific expertise company, Nawal Abboub has dedicated herself to striving toward this model. “After finishing my thesis on basic research in 2015, I wanted to switch to the field to see the social impact of technology,” the expert says. “That’s when I created Rising Up to accompany people in their daily business.” The initiative has landed her a slot on the 50 most inspiring French women in tech.
Limiting digital use takes simple steps in daily life. For example, as you’re reading an article online with several hyperlinks, the idea would be to finish the article before clicking on any of the links. “People need to set their own rules to structure their information research and digital use,” Abboub says. “It’s only by retaking control that we can manage our cognitive resources.”
The neuroscientist also advocates spending moments without technology. Taking short and regular pauses without a phone in the course of a day of work can be a good way to achieve just that. “Little by little, our attention networks wear out. We need to ask ourselves what recharges our cognitive batteries,” the expert says. “That could be playing a sport, a board game, a walk, or manual labor. The point is finding one’s own balance. If we do that, we’ll improve our cognitive capacities in a way where our brains will adapt better to our environments.”
Every day, About tries to “defuse the bomb” and to reassure users by showing them that screens, and digital technology in general, aren’t inherently negative. On the contrary, “I published a research article on screens and children, because it’s a big, rising public health issue,” the neuroscientist says. “You have to have a more nuanced vision than what’s developed so far. By using technology wisely, we can experiment with new things and develop fabulous skillsets!”
The expert also alludes to the quantity and diversity of information out there – and therefore of skills – that technology gives us access to. “Right now, nothing is preventing someone who has no books in their home from having access to infinite knowledge,” Abboub says. There are language-learning applications, for example, or free learning platforms that allow people who haven’t been to school to train themselves. “There are even experiences showing that babies from six to eight months can learn words on a tablet with its interactive nature,” the neuroscientist says, visibly fascinated. “Technology opens doors that never existed before.”