How smartphones are rewiring our brains

Are we damaging our brains and mental health for the sake of convenience?
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If we hung out in elementary school, I can still dial your mom's number from memory. If I met you after 1992, no matter how much I like you, I'm gonna need my smartphone.

Direct contact with the most important people in our lives is casually entrusted to the devices we're tethered to. Which, of course, only further strengthens that tether. With the exception of my mother (and again, yours if we were childhood buds) I can't call anyone I know without a handheld device in my palm, even if I had a functional "old-timey" phone in the other.

My brain, like yours, is still fully capable of remembering things like a 10-digit phone number (and about 2.5 petabytes of other memorable data like The Golden Girls theme song), I just don't let it. And there's a consequence to that. Smartphones, if we can still call them phones (already feels a bit like calling a car a "horseless carriage"), are changing our brains in crucial, maybe irreversible ways. Scientists are just starting to unpack the depth of those changes.

Put your phone on airplane mode for a spell and explore the ways our handy cerebral surrogates are making our brains less reliable. In case you need more data to justify your next digital detox, here's what smartphones are actually doing to our noodles.

They constantly steal mental focus

With beeps, buzzes and chimes alerting us to crucial intelligences like the latest software updates we'll regret installing, Tinder matches we won't message and our work colleague's groundbreaking new profile pic, our mastery of concentration is slipping away. Focus is becoming a lost art. One study reported that adults between the ages of 18 and 33 interact with their phones an astounding 85 times a day, spending about five hours doing so. Interestingly, the usage was largely unconscious. They all thought they spent about half that time.

Larry Rosen, a psychologist at California State University, monitored student tech use in another study. They only checked their phones 60 times a day, spending just under two hours total. Maybe younger folk are better a phone time management. Still, Rosen says devices are already an extension of us. Smartphones are "literally omnipresent 24-7, and as such, it's almost like an appendage," he says. "It's really influencing our behavior. It's changed the way we see the world." Or don't see it, our faces down as we amble through the day half focused on say walking down the street or finishing a mundane report. Heads up, btw, if you're read-walking this outdoors.

They weaken our memory skills

I have an 80-year-old uncle who is fond of saying he suffers from C.R.A.F.T. (Can't Remember A F*cking Thing). Recall suffers in old age, even for the most fortunate of us. Smartphones, an unprecedented knowledge resource, may be weakening our memory before its time.

Benjamin Storm, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz says, "The scope of the amount of information we have at our fingertips is beyond anything we've ever experienced. The temptation to become really reliant on it seems to be greater." It's a temptation we readily yield to. One of his studies offered strong evidence that the more students were allowed to use the internet to answer questions, the more they were prone to continue to use the internet, even when the questions became easier. What's more, they used it even when they knew the answers. Having constant access to the internet softens our recall, and we trust ourselves less knowing we can get definitive information with a Google search.  "No longer do we just rely on what we know," he says.

Betsy Sparrow, while at Columbia University in 2011 likened our reliance on search engine knowledge to that of a dear friend, "we must remain plugged in to know what Google knows."  She too thinks "we are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools."

But Storm reminds us that the human memory is unreliable, susceptible to cloudy recall and, occasionally, no recall at all. "Some people think memory is absolutely declining as a result of us using technology," he says. "Others disagree. Based on the current data, though, I don't think we can really make strong conclusions one way or the other." He's not convinced access to reliable digital information tool is totally detrimental to memory. He thinks we may just be arriving at information in a different way with our memory skills still intact. Though he's clear about a shift in cognition, we're not yet sure what that means. "There could be consequences that we're not necessarily aware of yet." Next time you have a blank though , try to remember the name of that guy in that movie you saw last week. You know it, it's just on the tip of your IMDb.

They kill our internal compass

Stories of people blindly following GPS instructions until they find themselves driving through an airport tarmac, or ending up bumper down in a swamp, solidify Darwin's survival of the fittest theory. But our over-reliance on smartphone tech may be making us all a bit more eligible for the Darwin awards.

Cognitive neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot of McGill University in Montreal says our internal compass may be fading as we take the easy way out more and more. But getting fatally lost in the woods, or a bad part of town, with no navigational skills may not be the only dark outcome. The navigation centers of the brain serve more than one purpose and changing the way we use them could have negative effects. One of Bohbot's studies showed that people who relied on a "response strategy" to navigate (implicitly trusting the commands of a GPS) were more prone to cigarette, alcohol and pot addiction. The culprit is the caudate nucleus, the same area of the brain that handles both being told how to get somewhere and inconveniently, our predilection for vice.

Those who navigate with a better sense of their terrain, a much harder task, use the non-addiction-adjacent hippocampus. Though Bohbot admits the complexities of the correlation are still unclear, we're definitely making cognitive changes for convenience that'll have potentially negative results. She says the problem is less about the technology and more that we "use it in the way that seems to be easiest for us. We're not making the effort." We're less prone to dig deep and remember that it's over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house when we can just punch her address into Google Maps.

They stress us the f*ck out

Or rather, their absence does. There is a psychological consequence to having our rectangular lifelines out of reach. Lack of tech access was proven to be tense, tortuous and provide clear markers of anxiety. The comedic lament of #nowifi is a common one but its effects on our mental health is less drole. Experiments have shown that heavy users can only last about 10 minutes before anxiety is measurable. In the case of smartphones, absence makes the heart beat considerably faster. One specific study, again by Larry Rosen, had students strapped to heart rate and sweat monitors as they read a passage with their phones visible, but well out of reach. As the scientists essentially tortured the students with incoming text alerts, their anxiety spiked and their reading comprehension dropped. Rosen believes that the stress of missed connections aren't anything new, but the frequency of that stress certainly is. "I think that this constant bombardment of needing to check in, needing to be connected, this feeling of 'I can't be disconnected, I can't cut the tether for five minutes,' that's going to have a long-term effect." The sheer volume of notifications begging to be addressed is unlike anything humans have ever had to deal with. What a time to be alive.

Some hope for mankind

Before you engage in the empty fantasy of throwing your smartphone into the nearest GPS-located river, take solace. Some research shows that technology may even correlate with good mental health. But, there's a sweet spot. Or what experts call the "Goldilocks spot" - not too little, not too much. Oxford's Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein at Cardiff University in Wales surveyed 120,000 British 15-year-olds and found that moderate tech use across various platforms correlated with positive mental health. There was really only a negative correlation for very heavy users but even there, the link between poor mental health and technology use was actually quite thin. "We found that you've got to do a lot of texting before it hurts," offers Przybylski. Even if a stronger relationship was found between technology and poor mental health, Przybylski says we wouldn't yet know why.  Perhaps, he posits, the effect could come from displacing healthier behaviours, not the technology itself. Things like exercise, or socializing, or getting far less restorative sleep by going to bed at 1am instead of 11pm after falling down an Instagram/Pinterest/FB clickhole, for example.

So the real question is, are smartphones making us dumb? While we're certainly enjoying a mental laxity that'll have longer-term effects, it's still impossible to say. What is certain is that once the scientists have figured this all out with further research, we'll be able to Google it.