The smartphone is quickly becoming an extension of the human brain. The latest entry into the market, the iPhone 4S, contains a feature named Siri that (according to the Apple website): "understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you'll keep finding more and more ways to use it." Now, I love technology as much as anyone (at least when it's working), but as a psychologist, I have to join in the voice of critics who yearn for a simpler, less tecnical age. It's not that I wish to return to the pre-computer age, of paper and pencil, however. Instead, I'm worried that we risk having our brains become vestigial organs. Research on technological tools suggests that offloading our mental functions to these electronic devices could cause our brains to go soft.
Consider the evidence from a study reported in late 2010 by researchers at McGill University. Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot and her team reported that relying on a global positioning system (GPS) to get to known locations reduces the function of the hippocampus, the "seahorse" shaped structure in the brain that controls memory and spatial orientation. Participants used to getting around on the basis of their own wits had higher activity and a greater volume in the hippocampus than the older adults using a GPS. What's more, when it came to their actual performance, the non-GPS users performed better on a memory test. Bohbot recommends that you turn off the GPS when you're navigating around your hometown and use it only for its actual purpose of finding locations you've never been to before. Your hippocampus will thank you, whether you're 16 or 60.
It's not much of a leap to extrapolate from the GPS to the smartphone. A normal cellphone can remember numbers for you so that you no longer have to do so. Confess-- can you remember the actual cellphone number of the people you call most frequently? We used to rely on our neurons to hold onto these crucial bits of information. Now they reside somewhere out there in the ether. What's worse is that most people don't even take the time to write down a new phone number anymore. You call your new acquaintance and your new acquaintance calls you, and the information is automatically stored in your contacts. It's great for efficiency's sake, but you've now given your working memory one less important exercise. Memory benefits from practice, especially in the crucial stage of encoding.
Let's move from phone numbers to information in general. People with smartphones no longer have to remember important facts because when in doubt, they can just tap into Google. When was the last time St. Louis was in the World Series, you wonder? Easy! Just enter a few letters (not even the whole city name) into your "smart" search engine. Your fingers, much less your mind, don't have to walk very far at all. Trying to give your brain a workout with a crossword puzzle? What's to stop you from taking a few shortcuts when the answers are right there on your phone? No mental gymnastics necessary.
This leads us to Siri, that seductress of the smartphone. With your iPhone slave on constant standby, you don't even have to key in your questions. Just say the question, and Siri conjures up the answer in an instant. With a robot at your fingertips, why even bother to look the information up yourself?
The irony is that smartphones have the potential to make our brains sharper, not dumber. Researchers are finding that videogame play involving rapid decision-making can hone your cognitive resources. Older adults, in particular, seem to be able to improve their attentional and decision-making speeded task performance when they play certain games. People with a form of amnesia in which they can't learn new information can also be helped by smartphones, according to a study conducted by Canadian researchers (Svobodo & Richards, 2009).
The problem is not the use of the smartphone itself; the problem comes when the smartphone takes over a function that your brain is perfectly capable of performing. It's like taking the elevator instead of the stairs; the ride may be quicker but your muscles won't get a workout. Smartphones are like mental elevators. Using your smartphone to play music too loud and too long directly into your ears can also cause premature hearing loss.
Psychologists have known for years that the "use it or lose it" principle is key to keeping your brain functioning in its peak condition throughout your life. As we become more and more drawn to these sleeker and sexier gadgets, the trick will be learning how to "use it." So take advantage of these 5 tips to help your smartphone keep you smart:
1. Don't substitute your smartphone for your brain. Force yourself to memorize a phone number before you store it, and dial your frequently called numbers from memory whenever possible. If there's a fact or word definition you can infer, give your brain the job before consulting your electronic helper.
2. Turn off the GPS app when you're going to familiar places. Just like the GPS-hippocampus study showed, you need to keep your spatial memory as active as possible by relying on your brain, not your phone, when you're navigating well-known turf. If you are using the GPS to get around a new location, study a map first. Your GPS may not really know the best route to take (as any proper Bostonian can tell you!).
3. Use your smartphone to keep up with current events. Most people use their smartphones in their leisure time for entertainment. However, with just a few easy clicks, you can just as easily check the headlines, op-eds, and featured stories from respected news outlets around the world. This knowledge will build your mental storehouse of information, and make you a better conversationalist as well.
4. Build your social skills with pro-social apps. Some videogames can actually make you a nicer person by strengthening your empathic tendencies. Twitter and Facebook can build social bonds. Staying connected is easier than ever, and keeping those social bonds active provides you with social support. Just make sure you avoid some of the social media traps of over-sharing and FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome.
5. Turn off your smartphone while you're driving. No matter how clever you are at multitasking under ordinary circumstances, all experts agree that you need to give your undivided attention to driving when behind the wheel. This is another reason to look at and memorize your route before going someplace new. Fiddling with your GPS can create a significant distraction if you find that it's given you the wrong information.
Smartphones have their place, and can make your life infinitely more productive as long as you use yours to supplement, not replace, your brain.
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Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Svoboda, E., & Richards, B. (2009). Compensating for anterograde amnesia: A new training method that capitalizes on emerging smartphone technologies. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 15(4), 629-638. doi:10.1017/S1355617709090791