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Are Smartphones Making Us Any Less Smarter?

The smartphones have reduced our recall skills as now we don't store data in our memory but store it in our phones or computers

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So you have bought or are planning to buy the new iPhone 8. And you are aware that the rapid increase in the usage of smartphones has guided you to a whole new world of connectivity. Smartphone users worldwide are now in constant touch with their distant friends and relatives, have access to seamless entertainment and virtually infinite information sources.

When you have a smartphone in your hand, you get unlimited access to news, views, and opinions from all around the world. No matter where you are you can share your status, photographs, do online purchases and can even have a video call with someone you know. Remember the times when you would want to meet a person and the medium to do so was slow and expensive. Whereas, now you are constantly connected to anyone and everyone on a press of a button.

Do you know that 10 years back Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft predicted that the iPhone will not gain significant market share and will always remain a niche product. Ballmer went on record saying that Microsoft software will be present in 80% of 1.3 billion sold mobile phones. But the result has been the other way round - in 2016  Apple share stands at 11.5% as compared to Window phone share of a mere 0.4%. Nokia at launch of iPhone was the market leader and welcomed iPhone but in a complacent tone said that it won't change Nokia's thinking. A year later Nokia CEO penned a blistering note to staff about how the company had failed to adapt. Blackberry also ignored the writing on the wall and considered iPhone (read smartphones) as just another competitor in a red ocean.

Some Internet reactions questioned the future of smartphones in general, and considered touch screen as a bad idea that will never work. Some balked at the idea of a short 5 hour battery and unwieldy large screen. Another one said that "I mean it looks pretty but it's not something you foresee being the next ipod for the phone industry".

But no one knew that how smart the smart phone really was going to be. We've known for a while now that mobile phones can have an adverse effect on our ability to concentrate, sleep and even socialise. But now new research has uncovered even more damning evidence for smartphone addicts, showing that the devices are actually reducing our intelligence.

Actually, today your brain is becoming dependent on smartphones and your intellect is weakening day by day. Research suggests that an average iPhone user unlocks his phone more than 80 times a day. This includes immediately upon waking up, just before going to sleep, and oftentimes in the middle of the night.

The smartphones are distracting you from attending to difficult problems in hand or complex situations. This is evident from the fact that you get distracted as soon as your phone rings, vibrates or a message is beeped. Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin has researched and concluded that, "The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance". During this study, the UT Austin researchers found that someone's ability to hold and process data significantly improved if his or her smartphone was in another room while taking a test to gauge attentional control and cognitive processes. Participants who kept their phones in a pocket or bag also outperformed those who kept their phones on the desk while taking the same test. Again, even if the phone was turned off and face down on the desk, the mere sight of one's own smartphone seemed to induce "brain drain" by depleting finite cognitive resources.

Smartphones were invented with good intention by providing some useful functions to make us smarter, but it has increased our anxiety levels too. Researchers have observed that the closer you are to your phone, your brainpower decreases. Researchers call it a phenomenon of "brain drain" that can reduce your learning capabilities, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.

The combination of a letterbox, newspaper, video player, music player, a camera, a library and your personal secretary, compressed in your smartphone is lethal for your brain functioning. This all is what smartphones do to us, no wonder we cannot live without them.

Starting of the 21st century, when we first started surfing on the world-wide-web we thought it would make us smarter. Strange but it's true, our knowledge and understanding may have diminished gradually as smartphone grant us easy access to the information sources without taxing our brain. Research from McGill University in Canada found that drivers who depend on GPS-style navigation to get around, as opposed to those who rely on their own spatial abilities, had less activity and gray matter volume in the hippocampus region of their brain-an area important for memory consolidation.

The smartphones have reduced our recall skills as now we don't store data in our memory but store it in our phones or computers. We access the electronically stored information and hardly push our brain to do the mental effort to remember and recall it. The researchers named this phenomenon the "Google effect" which implies that our learning is dependent on search engines therefore we believe that there is no need to encode and decode the information by using our brain. It means that whenever we need an information or search for a solution, we can immediately pick up our phone and look for it. Even a sibling's birthday is not remembered now - we are just training in how to find out the birthday. Contrast this with 30 years ago when birthdays, anniversary dates, and important phone numbers used to be on tips - leaving a few husbands out at that.

The advent of computers and smartphones has created a generation of people believing that they are more knowledgeable and smarter than the earlier generation but actually they are not. Man is a social animal but the smartphones have changed everything. There was a time when we would call our friend to check for information but with the unlimited flow of information through smartphones, many people may first pick up their smartphone and perform a Google search rather than calling a friend.

Researchers have proved that the quality of social interactions in the presence of smartphones has made us less empathetic towards people and situations. Further, they found evidence that have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality. The findings demonstrate that the presence of mobile phones can interfere with human relationships, an effect that is most clear when individuals are discussing personally meaningful topics.

Psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, "the art of remembering is the art of thinking." Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking. The lesser the information we record in our memory the lesser we think. But when we look for information through our smartphones, we often end up thinking that this information is generated through our smart intelligence and not through the smartphone.

Imagine you were a librarian in a large library of year 1980. That role gave you access to lots of books and encyclopedias. But did it make you the smartest human being? Or you were just a clerk having lots of knowledge chests in your custody. How many librarians have won Nobel Prizes or Booker Prizes or filed patents?

Do we have a history behind our memory? Can we allow smartphones to be smarter than us? Till the time we are dependent on smartphones and use it as our memory card, we will sacrifice our ability to think. Therefore we need to reduce our proximity to smartphones and give our minds more space to think. James Barrat has said about Artificial Intelligence being man's last invention, as post that, all inventions would come from the superior artificial intelligence (as per Turing's test). Is smartphone a precursor to that artificial intelligence?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Gaurav Sood

The author is a brand communication professional, consultant and educator with two decade practice of creating strong brands

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