The Mobile Phone Turns 50: How It's Changed Our Brain

The Mobile Phone Turns 50: Celebrating the Evolution and Analysing the Impact

It’s the 50th anniversary of the mobile phone. And with that anniversary, there is plenty to celebrate and also plenty to analyse as we look back and see the impact mobile phones have had on our brains since their invention. By now, many of us know that we spend way too much time on our phones. That awareness can often bring guilt but also a struggle to change our technological habits. Let’s have a look at what this small, yet incredible device has done and is doing to our brains.

You Check Your Phone Once Every Four Minutes

A US study found that the average person will check their phone 344 times per day, once every four minutes, and spend three hours on average on them. Often, we check our phones for something quick, and then 45 minutes later we’re still scrolling aimlessly. We get sucked into a seemingly endless void of scrolling and wasting time.

As the mobile phone has evolved and it has gained more usefulness, we now find ourselves in a vicious cycle: as our phones become more useful, we use them more and more. The more we use our phones, the stronger our neural pathways become which leads us to use them for the simplest of tasks, increasing our desire to check our phones every four minutes. In 2000, the average human attention span was 12 seconds, and in 2021 it was found to be 8 seconds. Scientists have attributed this significant decrease in attention span to the endless stimulation and distraction phones provide at our fingertips.

It isn’t just when we are on our phones that we aren’t focused on tasks, but even simply hearing the ‘ding’ of notifications has proven to make people perform worse on a task. Have we let this device get this much of a hold on us? It is not just the use of phones; it is its presence that is changing our cognitive states…that’s powerful.

Being Able to See Your Phone Is Causing ‘Brain Drain’

The Mobile Phone Turns 50 & It's Impact on our Brain

The proximity of our phones is contributing to what is called ‘brain drain’. Brain drain is where our brain is subconsciously fighting off the urge to check our phone, or taking cues from the environment to see if we should check our phone, thus draining our brain power while hard at work with these subconscious processes. It has also been proven that cognitive capacity is significantly reduced just by the presence of a phone, regardless of whether it’s on or off. So far, researchers have found that the only fix for this is putting devices out of sight when completing other tasks.

Mobile phones are also affecting our cognition and often leading to mental laziness. For example, we no longer need to memorize phone numbers or directions, for our phones can do all of these things for us. Mobiles are also affecting how we see. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been significant increases in children with near-sightedness, where they can see things up close, but things far away are blurry.

It’s no surprise that mobile phones are also impacting social skills. Even though social media convinces us we are ‘socialising’, the more time we spend on our devices, the less time we spend physically socialising with people. A lack of social interactions can lead to increased mental ill-health, which is continually on the rise. Phones have affected and changed so many cognitive processes that if we don’t do something now, these changes will keep happening subconsciously, inevitably leading to significant damage.

Do Phones Give us More Mental Space?

But, it would be unfair to say the impact of the mobile phone is all negative. Scientists have found that we attribute a sense of mental security to devices having high-value information within them, and so we free up space in our brains to hold lower-value information. The Google Effect is similar, in that we often forget the information we just looked up on Google because we know that it is easy to access this information again, so we don’t waste space on storing this information. They've also made it easier to talk to loved ones far away, get around town easily, and find useful information.

Mobile phones and technological advances aren’t going away, they’re only going full steam ahead. So, it’s up to us to decide how we interact with our mobile phones, and the power we so habitually give them. As you know by now, a lot of the research suggests that the mere presence of mobiles decreases cognitive capacity, so start with putting your phone out of sight and into another room while you are working or completing important tasks.

It's also handy to follow the 20/20/20 rule – every 20 minutes, look up at something 20ft away, for 20 seconds. Somewhere among the evolution of the mobile phone, we forgot that we rule how much input it has into our life and daily routine. You can put boundaries in place with technology to ensure it has less of a hold on your cognition and habits. Going cold turkey on technology is almost impossible these days, but putting boundaries in place is a viable option.

Here's to Technological Advancement!

The impact of the mobile phone has revolutionised how we communicate, socialise, interact, and live our daily lives. We now have access to infinite information at all times. However, despite the convenience of it all, we must remain aware of its effects. Remember, you control your relationship with your phone! But bring on the next 50 years of technological advancements… lets's witness where they take us!

References –

Ranieri & Co. (2021). Changing attention span and what it means for content. Ranieri & Co.

Ruggeri, A. (2023). How mobile phones have changed our brains. BBC.

The Decision Lab. (n.d.). The Google Effect. Decision Lab.

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