A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing article published in 2017 in the Journal for the Association of Consumer Research. It was titled, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”
The authors of the paper report the results of a straightforward experiment. Subjects are invited into a laboratory to participate in some assessment exercises. Before commencing, however, they’re asked to put their phones away. Some subjects are asked to place their phone on the desk next to the computer on which they’re working; some are told to put their phone in their bag; some are told to put their phone in the other room. (The experimenters had clever ways of manipulating these conditions without arousing suspicion.)
Each subject was then subjected to a battery of standard cognitive capacity tests. The result? Subjects measured notably lower on working memory capacity and fluid intelligence when the phone was next to them on the desk versus out of sight. This was true even though in all the cases the subjects didn’t actually use their phones.
The mere presence of the device, in other words, sapped cognitive resources. The effect was particularly pronounced in those who self-reported to be heavy phone users.
I think we’re only scratching the surface on the damage caused by our current technology habits. As I argued in Digital Minimalism, these tools are both powerful and indifferent to your best interests. Until you decide to adopt a minimalist ethos, and deploy technology intentionally to serve specific values you care about, the damage it inflicts will continue to accumulate.