Does simply having a cell phone nearby cause “brain drain” and have a negative effect on one’s cognitive abilities? Yes, according to new research.
The study, published in the journal The Consumer in a Connected World and described in The Harvard Business Review, examined 800 people who had their smartphones placed face-down on the desks, inside their pockets or bags, or in another room. The phones’ sound alerts and vibrations were turned off. The participants were then asked to complete math problems and to memorize random letters. They were also presented with a set of images with incomplete patterns and tasked with choosing the image that best completed the pattern.
Those whose phones were placed in another room performed the best on the tasks, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets and those whose phones were on their desks. Researchers found similar results when volunteers’ phones were turned off.
The conclusion? Just having a smartphone on one’s desk “led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.”
They wrote in the paper: “Results from two experiments indicate that 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.”
In other words, just having a cell phone nearby affects a person’s ability to think and solve problems, even if he or she isn’t actively using the device or even looking at it. The phone sabotages one’s focus even if it’s turned off.
People are dependent on their phones, which keep them connected to one another and contain droves of information. They offer numerous benefits. The devices have become an integral part of people’s lives, and humans can’t help but pay attention to something that is important to them, even if they’re concentrating on a specific task.
The researchers referenced the “phantom buzz” phenomena that make people think their cell phones are sending them a notification. They also noted that every time someone keeps a phone nearby while attending a meeting, going to the movies, or eating at a restaurant, his or her cognitive abilities are affected. At the worst end of the spectrum, cell phone use has resulted in traffic accidents and fatalities–proof of cognitive impairment.
The researchers suggest people put their cell phones away, in another room, when they aren’t directly necessary. Productivity, engagement, and awareness will increase as a result.