Seeing Your Phone Nearby Can Mess Your Memory Power

Switching it off or placing it face down just isn't enough.


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According to new research by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, smartphones have become a great source of distraction. Their mere presence can reduce our memory power, whether we are using them or not. Scientists suggest the study could lead to a better understanding of the dangers of being always connected and available.

The study suggests that having phones nearby means some of our memory power is inevitably used up as we try not to be distracted.

There is no doubt that our smartphones become more noticeable. When your phone is nearby, your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process of requiring yourself not to think about something uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. In other words, it is called brain drain.

Scientists conducted two different experiments. In the first, they involved 527 smartphone users and told them to turn their phones to silent. They even asked them to leave their phones in another room or put them in a pocket or bag.

Participants were then asked to complete a series of computer tests that required serious concentration to score highly.

Scientists found that participants who left their phones in another room performed very well. On the other hand, participants with their phones on the desk “slightly outperformed” those with their phones in a pocket or a bag.

During the 2nd experiment, scientists involved 275 volunteers in performing the same task. But this time, they were asked in advance how much they felt they depended on their phones.

Participants who reported being most dependent on their phones performed worse on the tests, but only when the phone was placed on a desk, in a pocket, or in a bag. If the phone was in another room, phone dependency had no significant impact on the test scores.

In short, scientists found that whether your phone is ON/OFF or placed face up or face down on a desk doesn’t affect overall performance. In other words, the only way to ensure that your phone isn’t distracting you is to physically remove it from the room you’re in.

Adrian Ward, one of the researcher said, “You probably don’t need telling that having a smartphone around can be distracting. But it’s interesting that just having a phone close by, even if it’s turned off or in silent mode is enough to reduce our mental capacity for other tasks.”

“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones. The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

Journal Reference

  1. Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. DOI: 10.1086/691462


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