Brain Drain through Smartphones – Smartphones as attention grabers


  1. What is the impact of smartphone on our cognitive ability?
  2. How much is smartphone use a question of self-control?
  3. What is the effect of self-control on our cognitive ability?

“We all understand the joys of our always-wired world—the connections, the validations, the laughs … the info. … But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs.”

Andrew Sullivan (2016)

Despite the tremendous, global revolution that smartphones have initiated economically, its invisible force controls and shapes our social relations. It constantly connects us to “to faraway friends”and thus creates a universal field of social reliability and distraction that “may undermine [our] performance”. The “phantom vibration syndrome” only indicates the new problems we are facing (QUELLE).

The forces smartphones exert on us are not actively established, but are a silent pressure that we cannot escape. They operate anonymously at any time by virtue of the complete transformation of our social surroundings. While personal computers are localized workstations, smartphones are transportable and therefore with us. The smartphone as a universal tool for almost any activity penetrates almost any moment of our everyday life, our social activities and our privacy. It is therefore nearly impossible to create a free space of relaxation independent of social and work-related stress.

Smartphone-users “interact with their phones an average of 85 times a day, including immediately upon waking up, just before going to sleep, and even in the middle of the night (Perlow 2012; Andrews et al. 2015; dscout 2016).”

Moreover, smartphones initiate a trend of exploiting us as a creative resource. We are mined for our attention and constant participation in semi-commercial and semi-social market. Our creativity, once source of relaxation, is now a manageable source of recognition within the net of social relations. The force driving this exploitation is, of course, the goal of providing services and sell products. Practically, however, it is a competition for attention. The more attention we give our phones, the more likely we will be a customer.

Gaining independence from smartphones is particularly difficult in China where the whole social life is built around smartphones. Metro-tickets have to be validated with smartphones, payments are processed via smartphones, sometimes you even identify yourself with your smartphone. This trend will probably be extended.

There are many additional negative impact factors of smartphone:

Smartphones and Learning

The thesis is that smartphone impacts processes of learning negatively.

“attentional cost of receiving cellphone notifications indicates that awareness of a missed text message or call impairs performance on tasks requiring sustained attention”

Since learning is a deep state of meditation, an innate capability of intense concentration, smartphones impact these capabilities of retreat. Learning is in a sense an asocial function. It means to retreat from the society for a moment just in order to return in an improved state. If extroversion means connectedness to all of one’s surrounding, then introversion is the opposite and probably comparable to its extreme, i.e., sleep and absense. Learning can be reconstructed as an aspect of introversion. For this article, I will therefore look at the smartphone-induced braindrain. We might call it Smartphone-induced ADHS (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Syndrom).

How do smartphones interfere with our processes of knowledge?

In general, we can say that our attentional resources are limited. For example, our working memory “supports complex cognition by actively selecting, maintaining, and processing information relevant to current tasks and/or goals”. The mind in terms of a computer metaphor makes understandable how smartphones can distract. If the smartphone is close our working memory is not empty. Our automatic attention will be constantly redirected to our phones.

“Automatic attention generally helps individuals make the most of their limited cognitive capacity by directing attention to frequently goal-relevant stimuli without requiring these goals to be constantly kept in mind.”

Smartphones capture our automatic attention and thereby diminish our working memory. Fatigue occurs faster.

How is this hypothesis tested in an experiment?

Thesis: Smartphone users fluid intelligence but also their working memory is tied to their devices.


520 university students with the task of solving tests in mathematics, memory and reasoning, while smartphones were placed on their desks, in their bags or in another room. Alerts had to be turned off.


Results: Smartphones reduce people’s intelligence and attention spans

Remarkable: If the phones were on the desk, students scored 10 percent lower compared to phones being stored in another room. If the phones were further out of sight (for example, in their pockets or their bags), they scored only slightly better than when phones were placed on desks. The effect was measurable even when the phones were switched off.

Possible explanations

Smartphones seem to effect us even if they are “Consistent with this position, research indicates that signals from one’s own phone (but not someone else’s) activate the same involuntary attention system that responds to the sound of one’s own name (Roye, Jacobsen, and Schröger 2007).”

“Even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention – as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones – the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capability.”


Self-control with respect to smartphones demands our attention and thus occupies working memory, which overall makes us perform worse. The best solution is to remove phones from our workplaces and if possible even maintain an internet-free work environment.

Considering that our output will be decreased by 10 percent, we can see how this will impact us in the long-run significantly due to compound effects.

“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.”

We suffer from our devices:

“those who depend most on their devices suffer the most from their salience, and benefit the most from their absence.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.