Just seeing your phone can make your brain's cognition worse, according to a new study

Just seeing your phone can make your brain's cognition worse, according to a new study
How distracting is your smartphone? New study offers insight.
Source: Mic/Shutterstock
How distracting is your smartphone? New study offers insight.
Source: Mic/Shutterstock

Your smartphone might be controlling you even when you're not using it. A new study from the University of Texas at Austin shows that your device can be ruining your brain's cognition. And it's not just being active on your phone — merely looking at your phone or being near it can be detrimental.

"We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants' available cognitive capacity decreases," Adrian Ward, one of the researchers, said in a statement. "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."

The team, who published their findings in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, conducted two studies. The first had 520 smartphone users turn their phones on silent and then do one of three things: leave the device in another room, place them face down on a desk or put it in a bag or pocket. The participants were given high-concentration computer tests.

Those who kept their phone in another room "significantly outperformed" those with phones on the desk and "slightly outperformed" those with their handset in their pocket or bag. But in a follow-up survey, the subjects claim they didn't think location was a factor in their ability to concentrate.

The second study had 275 smartphone users undergo the same procedure. This time around, they were asked before the computer task about how much they relied on their devices. The volunteers were, once again, asked to silence their phone and place it on a desk, in a pocket or bag or in another room. Some subjects were even asked to turn off their devices.

Performance did not differ between those who had their device on or off or placing it face up or down on a desk. And those who reported being dependent on their smartphones performed worse when their device was on a desk or in their pocket or bag.

The study's takeaway is that having your phone on silent mode or turning off the ringer isn't enough. Simply being near a handset is distracting.

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