Can't stop checking your phone? This is what it says about your brain

Researchers found a connection between the frequency of using a smartphone and checking notifications and damage to a person's most important cognitive abilities.

 Woman thinking while browsing on phone (Illustrative) (photo credit: PXHERE)
Woman thinking while browsing on phone (Illustrative)
(photo credit: PXHERE)

Smartphones have definitely changed the way we communicate, think and behave in almost every aspect of our lives. 

It makes sense that scientists from numerous countries are constantly trying to understand how profound this effect is, and the positive and negative consequences on our health. Usually, the negative effects of smartphones are stressed and this article will mention the alarming ones, yet it's important to understand that our phones are a tool that can help us and even, as we will understand later, improve brain health.

Let's start with the bad news. Last September, a study published in the British Journal of Psychology found an alarming link between increased smartphone use and brain damage.

According to the study, checking one's phone throughout the day is a sign of poor cognitive function. Researchers stated frequent use of a phone may lead to a cognitive load that is manifested, among other things, in a decrease in attention and concentration abilities, as well as memory problems. Also, researchers found that prolonged use of a smartphone impairs the ability to focus and complete tasks.

Yet in the current study, experts discovered that the same cognitive damage wasn't significantly related to phone use, but it was mainly influenced by the frequency of checking the phone throughout the day and also by the way it was used. 

Illustrative image of a baby with a phone. (credit: PEXELS)Illustrative image of a baby with a phone. (credit: PEXELS)

Again, unsurprisingly, they found that the most obvious damage appeared in those who frequently checked their phone during the day and especially if they used it for shopping, entertainment or games.

What surprised researchers was that those who used a phone for social interactions or used specific tools didn't suffer from impairment in cognitive function and even showed improved abilities in some cases.

One well-worn saying is that smartphones make people stupid, but that doesn't have to be the case. Phones give access to all the information in the world and to tools that help improve almost every area of life.

Certain smartphones can improve cognitive function

The findings of Andree Hartanto, a professor of psychology at the University of Singapore and lead author of the study, showed that certain types of smartphone use can temporarily help our cognitive function. 

For example, apps related to useful tools, such as a calculator or maps, can help people save cognitive resources and use them to perform other mental tasks.

Hartanto added that this surprising finding highlights the complex relationship between phone use and brain function. A phone, like any other tool, requires us to be aware and smart when we use it. This way, we can optimize its advantages and minimize its potential disadvantages.

It's important to stress that there are experts who disagree with Hartanto's opinion and believe that even "useful" apps may cause harm. For example, a study published last January in the journal PLOS One found that people with developed navigation abilities suffer less from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Dr. Jennifer Heisz, a brain health expert from McMaster University who led the study, said that in her view people who rely more on navigation apps and less on their capabilities may suffer from this in the long run. 

She stated that in modern life we one doesn't always get the cognitive and physical challenges that the brain needs in order to keep developing and to be worked out.

In general, it's important to remember that the more we challenge the brain with real, non-virtual cognitive tasks and stimuli, the greater the chance that this important organ will remain healthy and sharp over time. 

When we rely on external aids to function, whether they be tech, chemicals or habits that make us function automatically, we become lazier, mental flexibility is impaired and our brains, over time, may degenerate.