BRAIN AND NERVE CARE

Smartphones and Lazy Thinking

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
 | 
June 08, 2015

Do they really circumvent our ability for critical thinking?

Irony, when it really applies, is delightful. Which is why a study that concludes smartphones are making us dumber is funny — and disturbing.

The funny part is obvious. They are, after all, called “smart” phones. The disturbing part is that you most likely have one.

In essence, the study finds that smart phones can do too much for us: find a phone number quickly, make directions a breeze, and locate pretty much any place. Worse, they answer questions you would have researched and thought about in the distant past, circa 2007 or so.

This study suggests that smartphone users who are intuitive thinkers – “more prone to relying on gut feelings and instincts when making decisions” – use their smartphone’s search engine rather than their grey matter. In doing so, you become even lazier from the neck up than you would be otherwise, the study says.

“They may look up information (the users) actually know or could easily learn, but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it,” says Gordon Pennycook, co-lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology.

Analytical thinkers, on the other hand, “second-guess” themselves and analyze a problem in a logical sequence. A hallmark of highly intelligent people, the authors say, is that they are more analytical about everything and less intuitive when solving problems.

Which begs the question: which type of thinker are you? Being intuitive doesn't mean you’re not as smart as someone who is more analytical. There’s much to be said for your willingness to go with your instincts, which often turns out to be right because humans are wired that way. Running from a woolly mammoth was instinct, not analysis.

Still, to the study authors, a balance must be maintained, and they say you smartphone users are tipping too far toward the easiest and fastest way to make a decision and find information.

“Our research provided support for an association between heavy smartphone use and lowered intelligence,” says Pennycook. “Whether smartphones actually decrease intelligence is still an open question that requires future research.”

Without using your smartphone for an answer, you can trust that any study accompanied by the terms “open question” and “further research” is inconclusive and does not dictate that you throw your smartphone in the lake.

You have been badgering your kids for years to get their heads away from that little screen and to stop texting and playing video games for hours on end. Your instincts told you that it probably wasn’t growing enough cells on the brain farm. That probably didn’t require much analytical thought.

How many times have you heard someone you know say, “I have to take a break from this thing,” or “I need to spend less time on Facebook,” or Twitter, or a dozen other social media outlets?

You get it. Now a study has told you were right. Skeptics, of course, have already weighed in. To them, this is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

In an essay on Cyborgology, Jenny Davis says the research missed the proverbial forest by failing to ask how smartphone usage actually affects cognitive processes. Some smart people agree with her.

“The authors reacast this (important) question as a prediction, embedded in a host of assumptions which privilege unmediated thought,’ she writes.

“This approach is inherently flawed. It defines cognitive functioning (incorrectly) as a raw internal process, untouched by technology in its purest state. This approach pits the brain against the device, as though tools are foreign intruders upon the natural body.”

However, many a psychologist has said that the downside of this incredible era of micro technology is that you bury yourself in it, to the determent of things like noticing birds and the sun, and even other people. There’s analysis and thinking involved in that, too.

The advice is simple. If the results of the study affirm what you already thought, you’re smarter than the authors think, even if you use a smartphone. If you put the phone down, or turn it off, and spend time reading, lesson learned.

If the study results are a shock to you, do the same thing anyway. Read a book. Buy a map. Look up some information at the library. Ask someone older than you a question. Put your phone down and take a thoughtful walk. Consciously limit how you use your smartphone and the time you spend on it.

Is a study required for you to know that? Think about it.

Updated:

June 08, 2015

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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