Science Questions

Are smartphones changing our brains?

Tue, 17th Feb 2015

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Hannah Rowland asked:

Ive heard that London cab drivers get bigger parts of their brain from having to know where all the roads are and Im wondering if the bit of my brain that makes my right thumb type text messages on my phone might also be changing?


Are smartphones changing our brains? If so, how and is it a permenant change? We put these questions to Zurich University neuroscientist Professor Arko Ghosh...

Arko - If you take the brain of a London taxi driver, regions associated with Smartphonememory are on average, bigger than the general population even when compared to bus drivers who navigate on more constrained routes. Our brains are very flexible and can allocate their resources depending on our experiences. This can be very specific. For instance, concert violinists who grew up playing the instrument have higher activity in the part of the brain linked to the little finger of the non-bowing hand but not of the bowing hand.

Danielle - Estimates suggests that more than a third of worlds population will own a smartphone by 2017. What is in store for this growing smartphone community? Are we also changing our brains like the taxi drivers or violinists?

Arko - We recently found that the part of the brain that receives information from the thumb generates more electrical activity in people who use touchscreen phones compared to old fashioned phone users. We think this brain difference reflects the heavy reliance on the thumb in the more modern users.

Danielle - Hold the phone! How soon before our smartphones have an impact on our brain and is it permanent?

Arko - These changes seem to occur rather quickly, immediately falling a period of say, intense texting. The brain area that receives information from the thumb becomes more active. So, do not think these brain changes are permanent. In fact, we believe that the brain is continuously updated according to how we use our thumbs. This activity is likely to tail off after a period of non-use. Possibly taking a few weeks to revert back to normal. But we don't fully understand this as yet.

Danielle - Its good to know your brain does go back to normal after a phone detox, but is this change something we need to be worried about in the first place?

Arko - Every time you thumb through your phone, you do change your brain a little. But it is too early to say if this is something to be concerned about. We have a lot to learn about how the ever-changing brain impacts our behaviour in general.

Danielle - So, our interactions with our smartphones are shaping the way our brains work and respond. With always increasing possibilities of new technology, it looks like our brain will be changing for as long as our futures last. But we still have a lot to understand about how and why this is happening.

Arko - In fact, smartphones offer a beautiful opportunity to understand how our brains are shaped by our daily lives as the day to day behaviour is seamlessly stored into the phone logs.

Danielle - A big thumbs up to Arko, that brain tingling answer. Next week, well be releaving ourselves of this question sent in from Johannes...

Johannes - Why is it that I want to urinate more frequently in colder weather?


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There seems to be evidence that taxi drivers develop a larger area of brain used for spatial memory, musicians for reading music, etc. it makes sense that our brains would develop to give more area to new skills such as gesture control.
Perhaps other areas might atrophy eg reading visual clues in faces as we get less practice. I often see couples walking in the park both heads down in their phone, neither reacting together nor with their children.
Colin2B, Tue, 17th Feb 2015

Key things to remember are: 1.) our brains are malleable and 2.) neurons which fire together wire together.

What I mean by this is that our brains are constantly changing and adapting to new environments, new tasks and new situations. A term we can use for this is 'plasticity'. For example, if I broke my dominant hand I could learn how to write with my subdominant hand. And, with practice I would be able to write better and faster in this hand. This is due to the formation of new neuronal networks which strengthen the more I use my subdominant hand.

So if we think about the effects of using smartphones in terms of alterations in neuronal networks, increased usage (and how we use smartphones!) could affect our brains. Like most people, we constantly rely on our smartphones for tasks such as navigation (maps), simple arithmetic etc we are not using/ practicing these tasks. In addition, it's so easy to search the internet for something compared to solving problems logically. This could affect our brains- more specifically the connections between neurons. There may even be changes in the sizes of different areas of the brain such as the hippocampus or which is associated with spatial recognition.

For example, (as mentioned previously) a study of taxi drivers found they had larger hippocampal formations; possibly as in the past they had to memorise numerous streets, locations, one-way systems etc. it will be interesting to see if the 'new generation' of taxi drivers will exhibit this phenomenon as reliance on smart devices such as sat navs increase.

Obviously this is just my two cents and just the tip of the iceberg! There may (and quite likely) be other factors involved.

So in a nutshell: yes probably, but the extent to which this 're-wiring' of the brain occurs will obviously vary between individuals. rainbow.lo, Tue, 17th Feb 2015

I strongly disagree. To understand why simply calculate the strength of the electromagnetic field produced by the phone inside the brain. I've made such calculations before using extremely large EM fields (e.g. those under high tension wires) and found them to be incredibly small. So small to be completely dismissible. If we now compare that with the much smaller field that the cell phone generates then one can easily see that it can be easily dismissed. PmbPhy, Sun, 22nd Feb 2015

I strongly disagree. To understand why simply calculate the strength of the electromagnetic field produced by the phone inside the brain. I've made such calculations before using extremely large EM fields (e.g. those under high tension wires) and found them to be incredibly small. So small to be completely dismissible. If we now compare that with the much smaller field that the cell phone generates then one can easily see that it can be easily dismissed.

This thread isn't about radiation dangers, but I can understand why you haven't bothered to read it carefully because it is about the ridiculous idea that using your thumbs instead of your fingers to operate a phone will change your brain. Well of course it will change your brain in an utterly trivial way, more trivial than a typist switching from two-finger typing to proper touch typing, and that's something no one gets excited about in terms of brain changes. Do anything differently and your brain will change, but it's simply changing to accommodate the new way of doing the thing. There may be improvements in control of those digits that are used more often and that may impact on other skills where those same digits are involved, such as hitch-hiking and making rude gestures, but it's nothing to make a big deal over. David Cooper, Sun, 22nd Feb 2015

It's been known for a long time that violin players or pitchers in baseball have an altered map of the primary motor and sensory cortex that corresponds with the greater, more specialized use. But there's probably lots of neurological real estate for the fingers to begin with.

I'm more curious about the effects of cell phones on literacy and language. Although you can find all sorts of articles decrying the abysmal state of students writing skills, I can't believe it's as bad as the 70s, when large numbers of people often had no reason to write anything, for any reason, ever. Not everyone has a computer, but cell phones are becoming universal. And it's interesting that when I'm out in public, I usually see people looking at their phones, not talking on them.

I'm not claiming that cells phones will miraculously make everyone highly literate, but I would expect thinking in written as opposed to verbal language a significant part of every day to have some effect.

cheryl j, Mon, 23rd Feb 2015

The thing that made the biggest difference to my brain was probably having access to a spellcheck on computers. Before I had a computer, my spelling was terrible because I'd always refused to waste any of my time looking words up in dictionaries - I didn't care which which ridiculous spelling was required for which word and even devised my own spelling system so that I could write things for my own use without having to worry about it (though it was also designed for multilingual use).

Here's all that again using my phonetic writing system (though this is the latest version of it - I recently switched round "i" and "y"):-

dhu thik dhxt mjd dhu bigust difruns tw maj brjn wqz prqbublj hxvik xcses tw a spelttec qn cqmpywturz. byfor aj hxd a cqmpywtur, maj spelik wqz terubul bycqz ajd qlwuz rufywzd tw wjst enj qv maj tajm lwcik wurdz ap in dicshunurjz - aj didnt cjr hwitt rudicywlus spelik wqz rucwajrd fqr hwitt wurd xnd duvajzd maj on spelik sistum so dhxt aj cwd rajt thikz fqr maj on yws wythaot hxvik tw warj abaot it.

However, the spellcheck button on the Amstrad PCW turned things around in very little time and with no effort at all on my part - it gave me instant access to the right answers whenever I doubted a spelling, thereby giving me the most feedback about the words I most urgently needed to learn how to spell, so it wasn't long before I went from being one of the worst spellers on the planet to someone who could work happily without using a spellcheck at all, preferring to look up a physical dictionary (on paper) on the odd occasion when a word troubled me.

This is a pretty trivial kind of change to a brain, but it's massively more profound than the trivial business of using thumbs rather than fingers. I don't know if phones are providing the same service to improve people's spelling or if the compact nature of texts is causing the opposite effect - it may work one way for some people and the other way for others, depending on what they do with their phones.

Phones and the Internet have certainly had a huge impact on the amount of reading people do, but the success of video talks (Ted) is not a good sign because it appears to be the norm for vast numbers of people to acquire a horrific percentage of their knowlede in this hugely inefficient way which wastes at least 90% of their time, and that suggests to me that there are still major literacy problems getting in their way. David Cooper, Mon, 23rd Feb 2015

I was also a terrible speller, and still not that great but much better than in university, mainly thanks to spell check and the immediate feed back you get. The problem with being a bad speller is if you write a word incorrectly over and over, it starts to look right unless someone or something corrects you. It often seems that people are bad at predicting the effect technology will have. In the beginning, they said spell check would make everyone bad spellers, because they would become "dependent" on it,  but I think it has helped because of that instant feedback after an error. In the same way, I've heard that texting will destroy literacy because of short forms, abbreviations, etc. but given that a lot of people didn't write at all, I can only see it helping.

It isn't simply about the mechanics of writing though. Texting or statuses on Facebook may be a far cry from exposition, but I believe people think differently in writing than conversational speech, and neurologically it engages different parts of the brain. cheryl j, Tue, 24th Feb 2015

For most people, I suspect the ability to spell will take a big hit before long as speech-user-interfaces become the norm and virtual keyboards disappear (well, they'll still be there for times when privacy is vital, but most people will rarely use them). Their lesser ability won't show up though except when they need to write notes on paper. It would be interesting to see what impact speech recognition has on writing and on thought. I'm sure my writing would be quite different if I had to use a typewriter as it would make it impossible for me to edit things a hundred times to knock things into shape, but I suspect if I was to shift to speech input it would make little difference, although I'd be completely unable to work that way in any situation where someone might be listening in as I don't want anyone to hear anything other than the final polished version. David Cooper, Tue, 24th Feb 2015

I simply couldn't do it, but I have a hard time explaining why. It's  as if the person who talks is just a slightly different version of me than the person who writes. They'd have to collaborate and it would slow everything down. But my brother uses voice recognition all the time and he loves it.  cheryl j, Wed, 25th Feb 2015

Doing anything changes your brain, obviously. If you do it enough, you can transfer a conscious action into an autonomic response - like driving a car. It's entirely reasonable (though pretty remarkable) that any area of the brain that gets a lot of work, may expand as it rewires.

And I'm pretty sure the converse applies. Having played jazz bass for nearly 50 years, I am finding it very difficult to re-learn the piano. Problem is that the left hand middle finger, being the longest,  is weaker than the others so isn't much used in jazz playing. Returning to the keyboard (and to some extent guitar) after such a long break, I just don't have as much control over that digit as the others, and keep missing notes!  alancalverd, Wed, 25th Feb 2015

It makes me wonder about handedness. We tend to think of lefties as just opposite versions of right handed people, but most of them aren't, and use their right hand for certain things like cutting with scissors or throwing. Maybe there was a slight advantage to having certain fingers that are more dexterous on different hands.  cheryl j, Wed, 25th Feb 2015

Left-handed people using their right hand with scissors is almost always because of the design of scissors and not because they prefer to use them in their right hand - the natural way the thumb pushes left as it goes down helps to push the blades together, but if you use right-handed scissors in your left hand you'll find that it pushes the blades apart instead, so they don't cut well. David Cooper, Wed, 25th Feb 2015

They did have lefty scissors in school but you had to hunt through the whole coffee can to find a pair so maybe I just gave up and learned to use the regular ones. Sort of like using the mouse right handed because everyone at work would get mad at you for switching it around. But even though lap tops have a track pad in the center, I still do it right handed.

If you take a test for handedness, though, it asks all sorts of things- like which hand you eat with, open a door with, throw with, comb your hair with ,which arm is on top when you fold your arms, which eye you would look through a telescope with, which ear do you listen to the phone with,how would you strum a guitar. how would you thread a needle or pick up a very tiny bead.

But getting back to the original topic, I read an article about a study that said that people who were in the habit of googling stuff believe they know more about various topics than they actually do - more than what is actually committed to memory, compared to non-googlers. They feel kind of mentally connected to the information that they know is on the internet even if it's not in their brains. Of course, that may not be different from how people who have lots of books have always felt, but having a cell phone connected to the internet that we carry around at all times, may start to feel like an adjunct to our brains. cheryl j, Thu, 26th Feb 2015

It's just part of life becomes faster. There are many other things we need to do, and more people won't spend on the smartphones too much time. Our brains have been running in order to live or work or study or any other things.

diethyl, Thu, 26th Feb 2015

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