Heavy smartphone use linked to lazy thinking, study finds

Love them or hate them, smartphones have undoubtely changed the way we consume and recall information — but they may also be hindering the average human's ability to solve problems without one.

Could relying on a smartphone to solve problems be making you less intelligent?

University of Waterloo researchers have found a correlation between heavy smartphone use and 'lowered intelligence.' You could look it up. (Mireya Acierto/Getty Images)

If you're old enough to remember the days of buying physical maps, you may also remember the first time you used Google Maps on your smartphone — and never looked back.

Like digital cameras, recipe books, and landlines, maps are no longer necessary for modern humans to own.

We've got access to directions (and almost anything else we could ever need to know, at any given time,) right in the palms of our hands.

Love them or hate them, smartphones have undoubtely changed the way we consume information, and — as many have contended — they’re changing the way we recall information too.

From The Atlantic's 2008 cover story Is Google Making us Stupid? to Gary Turk’s "Look Up" video, which went viral last year, there's been no shortage of thought put into how digital technology is re-wiring our brains for the worse.

Fortunately for those who embrace the cognitive-enhancing properties of smartphones (like Duke research scientist Dr. Jonathan Wai,) there hasn’t been a great deal of publicized research to date that concretely links mobile devices with a decrease in human brain function.

Or rather, there hadn’t been much publicized research in that area prior to The University of Waterloo’s release of a study called The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking late last week.

Published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, this study is making waves around the web right now with its assertion that heavy smartphone usage may actually be associated with lowered intelligence.

Our research provides support for an association between heavy smartphone use and lowered intelligence- Gordon Pennycook, PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at Waterloo

"Decades of research has revealed that humans are eager to avoid expending effort when problem-solving and it seems likely that people will increasingly use their smartphones as an extended mind," said co-lead author of the study Nathaniel Barr, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Waterloo’s psychology department.

"It’s important to understand how smartphones affect and relate to human psychology before these technologies are so fully ingrained that it’s hard to recall what life was like without them," he continued. "We may already be at that point."

A press release issued by the university on Thursday explains that the study’s authors looked at two different types of thinkers for their research — "intuitive thinkers" and "analytical thinkers."

Intuitive thinkers tend to rely more heavily on theirs instinct and gut feelings when making decisions, while analytical thinkers (the group more-often associated with highly intelligent people) solve problems with logic.

According to the researchers, an intuitive thinker is more likely to use the search engine on his or her mobile device rather than brainpower to solve a problem.

"They may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn, but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it," said Gordon Pennycook, the study’s other lead author.

Or as the press release puts it, smartphones allow intuitive thinkers "to be even lazier than they would otherwise be."

The paper’s authors came to their conclusions after examining things like the cognitive styles, verbal skills, numeracy skills and smartphone habits of 660 different participants.

"Our research provides support for an association between heavy smartphone use and lowered intelligence," said Pennycook. "Whether smartphones actually decrease intelligence is still an open question that requires future research."

As NPR notes, it's important to understand that the sentence above speaks to correlation, not causation — heavy smartphone usage has not been proven to result in lowered intelligence.

For all we know at this point, highly intelligent people may simply be less-likely to rely on mobile devices. Or not. Like Pennycook said, further research is required to know the answer.