Escaping the Brain Drain

By Sarah Holcomb – September 1, 2017

If you’ve ever been tempted to peek at your phone for no particular reason, you’re in good company.
Dr. Adrian Ward, McCombs assistant professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin, remembers sitting in Harvard Square as a graduate student, chatting with Harvard post-doc Maarten Bos, when both felt the familiar impulse. 
“We turn to [our phones] even if we just have a spare second,” Ward says. “There’s almost this automatic attention to your phone.”

Their observations triggered curiosity: How does this “automatic attention” affect our brains?

Five years later, Ward and Bos, along with two co-authors, published a study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, attracting international interest. Their findings indicate the mere presence of a smartphone uses up some of our brain power, decreasing our ability to concentrate. 

Ward led the study, conducting two experiments to measure how nearly 800 smartphone users could complete tests with their smartphones nearby. 

Participants were directed to silence their smartphones and place them either face-down on their desks, in a pocket or personal bag, or in another room. 

Those who kept the devices on their desks fared the worst, while those who left them in another room performed significantly better. Even with phones powered off, the effect persisted.

We automatically use some of our limited cognitive resources to resist our smartphones, Ward explains, leaving less available for other tasks—whether we’re working, studying, or talking.

He terms this effect the “brain drain.” 

Imagine having a conversation at a loud party. Even though dozens of conversations are happening simultaneously, it’s not difficult to tune them out. “But if someone says your name, you’ll automatically turn toward them,” Ward explains. “The more relevant something is to you, the harder it is to push it out and pay attention to the task at hand.”

Our phones are always relevant, Ward says.

Many of us center our lives around our phones, depending on them to schedule appointments, check emails, track calories, navigate, communicate—you name it. The average American young adult checks his or her phone 82 times per day, or about once every ten minutes. 

“[A smartphone] is everything that we could be doing other than what’s right here and right now,” Ward explains. 

According to the study, our productivity and efficiency suffers with a smartphone around. Since phones tend to be our constant companions, Ward considers small effects collectively to be “a pretty big deal.”

In order to escape the “brain drain,” he recommends a healthy dose of distance. The study’s results inspired Ward to form habits of intentional separation, such as leaving his phone on the counter at home or in his office at work. 

The benefits of separation extend beyond enhancing productivity to living in the moment. “In the right context, as you start leaving your phone behind more and more, you start enjoying it,” he says. 

Ward remembers waiting outside a neighborhood store while his girlfriend shopped for cheese one morning, wishing he brought his smartphone to kill time. “I just sat there and sat there at a picnic table, and eventually it became wonderful—I had a great time just sitting there at that picnic table, not having the internet. But it’s so foreign.” 

His research found that people who exhibit greater dependency on their smartphones will be most impacted by the “brain drain.” Other studies have pointed out addictive patterns in smartphone users. One researcher likens the devices to “adult pacifiers.”

“These days, we’re all pretty dependant,” Ward says. “We think we need our phones a lot more than we do.” 

In the growing “dumbphone” movement, some are trading smartphones for “dumber” versions without internet. Sometimes Ward uses his “Light Phone,” a device that allows him to text or call without added distractions.

Yet the 30-year-old is no enemy of tech. Ward quickly praises the connectivity and convenience of smartphones.

And since his own smartphone drowned in a lake recently, Ward is acute to the struggles of living without it: navigating an unfamiliar part of town, and being unable to check emails, or track the calories in his larger-than-normal blended tea.

“I got a lot of stair cases today, I hope I get credit for these,” he says, pointing at his fitbit.

A smartphone is a tool, Ward explains. “It allows us to do awesome stuff, but also, there are some costs.” Establishing healthy smartphone habits will vary for different people, but Ward focuses on “taking back the reins.”

“At least ask the question of what purpose it is fulfilling and what sort of power you’re letting it have over your life.”



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