This post was written by Tongyao Zhang.
Have you – at least for a moment – ever imagined throwing your smartphone out the window, especially when you are trying to focus on your work? Now you might have a justification for your impulse. Behavioral scientists recently found that if your smartphone is merely present in your room, and even if you are not consciously thinking of it, you may still be distracted and lose access to part of your intelligence.
A group of scientists designed a close-to-life scene in a laboratory of University of Texas at Austin. They invited young adult participants to sit down and complete some basic cognition tests that consume great attention and flexible intelligence. During these tests, the first group of participants placed their smartphones face-down on the desk they were using; the second group had their smartphones in either their pockets or bags; the third group was asked to leave the smartphones out of the test room.
It turned out that the out-of-room group outperformed the groups with either phones on the desk or in their pockets/bags. A follow-up experiment confirmed the same case even if the smartphone in the room was powered off.
Intriguingly enough, when being asked about how they think the smartphone affected their performance, all groups answered very similarly, that they didn’t think their performance was affected a lot by the smartphone, regardless of its location. Despite the difference in performance, all groups reported similarly that their phones almost never came into their mind.
“Brain Drain” – both your smartphone and your task kept asking for resources
Are smartphones really draining us permanently? Not really. When having a smartphone in your room, brain resources flow like water through a leaked pipe (some leaks out along the way). As explained by researchers from University of Texas Austin, University of California San Diego, and Disney Research, the resources should be available for the tasks, but part of it “drained” through the hole – the existence of your smartphone (Ward et. al., 2017). This is called “brain drain”.
How does your smartphone produce brain drain? The researchers explain that our cognitive resources are finite, and that smartphone APPs’ design by nature is to attract our attention and occupy our brain’s attention as its priority. In other words, our attention resources are vulnerable to smartphones, and our work is often not as “arresting” as smartphones.
It seems our smartphones are silently competing with what we are trying to do right now. Sometimes even if we don’t consciously bring them up in our minds, we are still consuming resources to keep ourselves from getting distracted, thus using part of our brain capacity towards our smartphone devices.
Distracted because of seeing/hearing your phone? Not totally.
While reading about this study, I desperately looked for the difference between the on-the-desk group and the in-the-bag group. Please tell me it works (at least a little bit) when I bury my phone under the quilt to prevent myself from seeing it! The result let me down to some extent – in one of the tests, there was no difference between on-the-desk and in-the-bag groups. In other tests, leaving the phone out of the room still improved performance more than just hiding it nearby. Smartphones are still taxing our brains even if we don’t see them, hear them, or even turn their power off.
As a result, the only way to get rid of your phone’s ability to “brain drain” is to leave it outside of the room. The magic “out-of-door” power might be because we have to stand up and enter another region to fetch the phone. We could also speculate that our mind has an “area under its jurisdiction”, and the smartphone would become something “in existence” in your mind ONLY when it’s inside that magic processing area – the room where you are.
I was struggling with my smartphone while reading this research article about smartphones draining our cognitive resources. So, how was I able to complete reading it? Well, the answer is in the study itself- just leave my phone out of the room, to the extent that I won’t be aware of its existence, at least for several hours.
I found another solution that helped me prevent “brain drain” caused by my phone as well: I begged my mother to take it to work. Having my mother take my phone to work has worked wonders in conserving my mental energy and focus, and thus preventing “brain drain,” and my next step is to uninstall entertainment functions from my PC. Who is to say it is just phones causing “brain drain?” Can you think of other things in your day-to-day life that might cause “brain drain”? Removing or minimizing these “drainers” may help you live a more focused and mentally clear life. Try it out!
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), 140-154. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/691462