If you’re like most people, your smartphone is probably within reach pretty much all of the time. But new research from the University of Texas at Austin suggests you might want to rethink that habit.
According to the study, which was published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, your brain capacity is significantly reduced when your smartphone is nearby, and that’s even true when it’s off. For the study, researchers conducted a series of experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users to see how well people can do things while their phones are near them.
In one experiment, the researchers had participants take a series of computerized tests designed to measure cognitive capacity, i.e. the brain’s ability to hold and process data at any given time. The tests also required the participants’ full concentration in order for them to do well. Some people were randomly told to place their phones on the desk face down, in their pocket or bag, or in another room. All participants were told to put their phones on silent.
The researchers found that people who kept their phones in another room did significantly better on the test than those who had their phones on the desk, and even did better than those who had their phones in their pocket or bag.
Before another experiment, researchers asked people how much they depend on their phones, and then asked them to take the same computerized test as the previous groups. The only difference: Some people were randomly assigned to keep their phones on the desk face up, while others were asked to turn off their phones. People who were the most dependent on their phones did worse than other study participants — but only when their phone was within reach.
The study’s researchers say that just having your phone around can create a “brain drain,” leaving you with less brain power than if your phone wasn’t nearby. While you may not be consciously thinking about your phone, the process of not thinking about it when it’s there requires brain power that could be used for something more productive. “Even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention — as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones — the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, who didn’t work on the study, tells Yahoo Beauty that people have a limited cognitive capacity — meaning, you can only process so much information at once. Having your phone nearby — even if you’re not actively looking at it — registers in your brain on some level, sucking mental resources away that could be used for something much more important.
However, Mayer points out, everyone’s brain power is different. Some people may be just fine completing high-level tasks with their phone nearby while others will struggle. Only you know where you fall on the spectrum.
Regardless of how dependent you are on your phone or how much of a distraction it is for you, Mayer recommends putting it away sometimes. You actually don’t need it as much as you think you do. “I’m sure there have been other products and habits in human history that we have been ‘trained’ to not be able to live without, but cell phones are a remarkable marketing success in the U.S.,” he says. “We have become social and cognitive slaves to our cell phones and the thought of being without them is devastating.”
That’s why he recommends training yourself to be without your phone for periods of time throughout the day. It might be hard at first, but you’ll “free up cognitive space in your brain to do and enjoy other things in life,” he says.
Think of it this way: Putting away your smartphone here and there might actually make you smarter.
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