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We’ve got the iPhone habit, so what’s it doing to our brains?

Everybody’s doing it. Scott Beale

I knew I had a problem when, in the five seconds before the lift arrived, I found myself checking newsfeeds on my iPhone.

The constant, restless fingering of the phone’s shiny surface, this filling of every microscopic time-gap in the fabric of the day, is, I suddenly realised, an issue.

But it is not just me – in every coffee shop, bar, bus-stop, I see hands swiping and flickering eyes checking, pale fingers perfect reflections of the mental restlessness underlying their scrabbling.

There was a time when the people on the train opposite me would either be reading a book or newspaper, or, more usually, leaning back with a slightly vacant expression as their eyes dreamily trawled the passing townscape.

Nail biting for the brain

I remember in my first year in primary school, seeing a girl I fancied biting her nails. So I, who had never bitten a nail in my life, began to nibble at mine until all at once it was a near-indelible habit burned into my ultra-malleable young brain.

The reflexive pulling-out of my iPhone as the lift approached was, I suddenly realised, very similar to that nail-biting habit, except in one important respect: biting my nails occupied only a tiny proportion of my brain and it could, in fact, by warding off distracting thoughts, help me concentrate on reading that book or doing that sum.

The iPhone habit, on the other hand, is neurologically all-consuming – vision, touch, memory, thinking are all full-on occupied by this gorgeously shiny piece of technological seduction and software systems it channels such as Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook and the rest.

In that five seconds of insight as I waited for the lift to arrive, I saw that I had been systematically depriving my brain of an entire class of experiences which go under the names of mind-wandering, daydreaming or just plain sitting. As one sage remarked: “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits”.

In the lift, on the device. mini true

So, how did I react to this insight? Please don’t mock – but as soon as I stepped out at the third floor, I searched Google Scholar to find out what cognitive neuroscience might tell me about what I was doing to my brain. In fact, it was so interesting, that I nearly bumped into someone as I shuffled head-down, along the corridor to my office, my face shining with the tell-tale glow of the little screen.

Let’s start with memory. People in their early seventies listened to a story and then were asked to recall as much of it as they could. They then either just sat engaging in “wakeful resting” for 10 minutes or they played a spot-the-difference computer game.

Those who had rested for the ten minutes after learning the story remembered 20 percent more of it half an hour later than those who had played the game. Amazingly, and more importantly, these effects lasted a full seven days.

And it wasn’t the case that they were frantically rehearsing the story while supposed wakefully resting – debriefing afterwards showed that very little of that went on. These effects, known as consolidation were an automatic process of laying down the memory that goes on in the resting brain, but not the computer-dazzled one.

By now a PhD student had found me standing outside my door, peering into my iPhone – gently, she asked me if I needed any help – I grunted unintelligibly, for by now I had discovered that creative solutions to problems are more likely to come when your mind is wandering than when it is focused on a task like thumbing through a thousand tweets.

I froze, mid-fumble for my keys, eyes screwed into the tiny print. Holy smoke, not only is this digital nail-biting going to worsen my already dodgy memory and stultify my creativity – it’s going to affect my mood too. Young adult Facebook users were texted five times per day for two weeks to ask about their mood and Facebook usage: the more people used Facebook at one time point, the more their life satisfaction declined over time.

By now I had just managed to get into my office and was just about to respond to the “ping” of an incoming email on the phone when I lifted my head and suddenly remembered a long-ago bitter taste.

Yes! That’s the answer – that’s how my mum got me off nail-biting – she painted this revolting green stuff onto my nails.

If I can only force my mind to wander for a bit, maybe I can come up with a creative way to curb iPhone use – some stinging substance to coat them with, perhaps? Hold on while I Google that …

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Edward Campbell

    Old Left-wing Geek at Northern New Mexico high desert country

    What a crap whinge. Do people really still confuse the medium with content.

    I can just hear this blather echoing from the time of Gutenberg about people sitting and focusing too much on reading because of movable type.


    1. Ian H Robertson

      Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin

      In reply to Edward Campbell

      But surely it is all about evidence, Edward? Is the Conversation really the best place for words like 'blather' and 'whinge'? I thought mine was a rather bouncy, un-whinge-ey piece, actually.

  2. Rhonda DeZeeuw

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm wondering....if in todays world I'm reading a book on a tablet instead of using a real paperback or if I'm playing a game on my cell instead of using a crossword puzzle from the NY Times...what's the difference?

    Also I do understand the lure of a device as you can find anything there. You don't have to wait to search fo data, to reach for a friend, or even figure out what the weather will be like where before you would. Perhaps you'd have to go to a library, wait until you found a landline, and wait for the 6pm news in the past. Today I have all that information at my finger tips within seconds.

    Is the wish for going back to the days before such technology just one of those things? A longing for the past when things were 'simplier"? To me it seems like every generation longs for times of the past because they were "better" however is it actually true?

    1. Ian H Robertson

      Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin

      In reply to Rhonda DeZeeuw

      Completely agree, Rhonda - there are wonderful things about the technology. Mine wasn't a Luddite complaint, but rather a recognition that we need to control where our mind is rather than let it be controlled by this seductive technology. So by all means let's use all these wondrous functions, but we need to let our minds roam free as well at times and it's probably a good idea to plan periods of technology 'down time' - particularly immediately after we have learned something new, when our brains benefit from some 'restful waking' to consolidate the new learning.

  3. Soma Sinha Roy

    logged in via LinkedIn

    technology does have a flip-side that is hazardous, yet we are so proned to make our lives easier that at every step it is indispensible.yet there is no substitute to a tech-free life in which we read books, spend time with dear ones (and not converse online), exchange ideas in a physical setting.

    1. Soma Sinha Roy

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Ian H Robertson

      Sir, unfortunately technology is furnishing us with substitutes that are engaging us all the more instead of liberating us.