Just knowing that your phone is within reach can reduce your ability to focus, to think and solve problems through your own brain power. [Photo: Bigstock]

Want to be smarter? Put your phone away

27 June, 2017

Natural Health News — Your brain power is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach – even if it’s turned off.

That’s the takeaway finding from a new study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

The researchers conducted experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users in an attempt to measure, for the first time, how well people can complete tasks when they have their smartphones nearby, even when they’re not using them.

In one experiment, the researchers asked participants to sit at a computer and take a series of tests that required full concentration in order to score well. The tests were geared to measure participants’ available cognitive capacity – that is, the brain’s ability to hold and process data at any given time. Before beginning, participants were randomly instructed to place their smartphones either on the desk face down, in their pocket or personal bag, or in another room. All participants were instructed to turn their phones to silent.

What you need to know

» New research has shown that just having a mobile phone in the same room is an unconscious distraction that can interfere with your ability to think and retain data.

» In a series of tests, those who left their phones in a separate room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk.

» For those with a high self-reported dependence on their phones the cognitive cost of having a phone within reach or sight was much higher.

Brain drain

The researchers found that those whose phones were in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available brain power and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” said co-author and McCombs Assistant Professor Adrian Ward. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”


In another experiment, researchers looked at how a person’s self-reported smartphone dependence – or how strongly a person feels he or she needs to have a smartphone in order to get through a typical day – affected cognitive capacity.

Participants performed the same series of computer-based tests under the same conditions as the first group. Those who reported being the most dependent on their smartphones performed significantly worse compared with their less-dependent peers, especially when they kept their smartphones on the desk or in their pocket or bag.

The researchers write “Ironically, the more consumers depend on their smartphones, the more they seem to suffer from their presence or, more optimistically, the more they may stand to benefit from their absence.”

An unconscious distraction

Ward and his colleagues also found that it didn’t matter whether a person’s smartphone was turned on or off, or whether it was lying face up or face down on a desk. Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach was an unconscious distraction that reduced a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working to not pick up or use the phone.

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