If you can remember a time before you carried a tiny computer around in your pocket, you might wonder what happened to the parts of your brain which once stored skills like map reading or remembering phone numbers. These days, it’s a common assumption that society’s collective reliance on technological “crutches” (e.g. the iPhone) is making humans less intelligent than we were pre-smartphones—but are smartphones actually making us dumber? Not so, say experts.
According to an article published in Nature Human Behavior, there is no evidence that smartphones and other forms of digital technology are hindering our cognitive abilities. On the contrary, it appears as though they supplement our thinking, enabling us to complete more complex tasks and freeing up space in our brains to store different types of information than we were once required to commit to memory.
“We’ve basically looked at the data and concluded that it doesn’t actually show that your smartphone is making you stupid,” says Anthony Chemero, PhD, a behavioral expert at the University of Cincinnati who is one of the paper’s three authors. “Instead, it’s showing that people are just thinking differently—they’re being intelligent in different ways.”
Prior research connecting smart technology to diminished cognition is flawed, explains Dr. Chemero. “There have been some scientific studies of human performance with and without smartphones, and they indicate that if people have their smartphone handy, they do less well at cognitively demanding tasks,” he says. “And [my co-authors and I] argue that this actually doesn’t show that your phone makes you less intelligent; instead, it shows that you’re more interested in your phone than in a difficult, annoying, boring task.”
“[The data] doesn’t actually show that your smartphone is making you stupid… it’s showing that people are just thinking differently—they’re being intelligent in different ways.” —Anthony Chemero, PhD
If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. My smartphone isn’t making me less competent as a writer; it is, however, providing me with something far more fun and easy to do with my time than write. “It’s a motivational issue more than an intelligence issue,” says Dr. Chemero. So while smartphones may be sabotaging our desire to participate in activities we find challenging, boring, or otherwise unappealing, they aren’t hindering our ability to participate in them.
Sure, some skills once possessed by most people, e.g. map reading, may now be lost. But it’s not as if we’re leaving the space freed up in our brains by machines empty; instead, we’re storing information that is more relevant or interesting to us. As Dr. Chemero points out, bemoaning the loss of our ability to navigate using a paper map rather than a GPS system doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Your grandparents or great-grandparents may have learned how to milk a cow growing up, but just because you don’t know how to do that now doesn’t mean you’re less intelligent than prior generations; that skill is just not universally necessary in 2021 as it may have been 100 years ago. “Given what people do with their lives now, their ability to memorize things like fifteen-digit long division is just not very relevant,” he says. “And [smart technology] can enable us to do other things with that mental energy.”
Technology, in other words, allows us to outsource that long division (for example) so that the mental energy we’d otherwise use on it can go to solving even more complex problems. So if you feel badly about needing your calculator to properly split a restaurant check—don’t! Your brain isn’t atrophying as a result; it’s just learning different, more relevant skills.
With that said, Dr. Chemero wants to make it clear that he and his co-authors aren’t arguing that smartphones and other modern tech are good for health, full-stop. People can become addicted to their phones and/or have trouble regulating their usage, and it can be (and often is) used for negative purposes such as bullying. (There’s also substantial evidence connecting blue light from phone and TV use to skin damage and disrupted sleep patterns.) Plus, he says, there are ethical issues at play with respect to artificial intelligence. But while there may be psychological and social consequences to our reliance on smartphones, there aren’t necessarily cognitive ones. “The one thing that our phones are not doing is making us dumber,” he says.
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