Can your phone cause ‘brain drain’ when it’s off?

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Most us of couldn’t imagine life without smartphones. How would we cope if we couldn’t check the weather first thing, chat to a mate in Australia or LOL at videos of kittens falling off things? But beware – dependence on this hyperconnectivity comes at a cost. Could the mere presence of your smartphone significantly reduce your cognitive capability, even when it’s not on? According to a new study, your device could be surreptitiously draining your brain power.

Researchers from the McCombs School of Business, at The University of Texas at Austin, have been fully concentrating on getting some answers. 



Previous research into the consequences associated with smartphones focussed on how people’s interactions with their devices can both facilitate and interrupt off-screen performance. For the new study, researchers noted how people ‘are constantly surrounded by potentially meaningful information; however, their ability to use this information is consistently constrained by cognitive systems that are capable of attending to and processing only a small amount of the information available at any given time’.

The scientists conducted two experiments, involving a total of almost 800 undergraduates. During the first, participants sat at a computer and took a series of tests that required full concentration, to measure cognitive capacity. They were then randomly instructed to place their smartphones, turned to silent, either face down on the desk, in their pocket or in another room.

Experiment 2 looked at how much a person’s self-reported smartphone dependence affected cognitive capacity. Subjects performed the same tests as group 1, however, some were told to turn their phones off.



In Experiment 1, the researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and also slightly outperformed the subjects whose phones were kept in a pocket or bag.

The results of Experiment 2 showed that the subjects with the most dependence on their phones performed worse compared with those who were less dependent, but only when they kept their smartphones on the desk or in their pocket or bag.



McCombs Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and his colleagues found that it was immaterial whether a participant’s smartphone was on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on the desk.

Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

Prof. Ward concluded: “It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence of a smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”


What the press said:

“Having a smartphone in reach reduces brainpower even when switched off”

“Why your phone is a ‘brain drain’ even when it’s off”

“Having your mobile within arm’s reach reduces brainpower even if the device is turned off”