Smart Phones Don’t Make You Smart

I know most people who have a cell phone these days have opted for what’s called the “smart phone” with all sorts of apps and capabilities built in. And they (I don’t have one or I’d say “we”) use them a lot. The standard posture in this country has become head down, eyes on the little tiny screen cradled in our hand, doing whatever. Or, rather, in many cases, the phone is doing the whatever. You no longer have to think to type in search words online because the app will start suggesting what you are about to look for from the moment you tap the first letter. That’s a problem, because the act of thinking of and then entering search words manually exercises your brain, keeps the neurons firing and your brain in better working condition. The more of our thought processes we surrender to the computer chip, the less sharp we’re all going to be mentally. And the same, maybe even worse, goes for the dictating function available on many phones today…if I want to find something, I don’t have to think of where to find it and how to search for it, I ask the computer and, again, it does all the thinking, while my brain cells just sit there.

In a day when the “fear” of Alzheimer’s seems to be ever-present (how often has someone claimed to be having a “senior moment” in your presence in the last week or so?), we can go a long way toward keeping our cognitive functions in better shape if we stop surrendering so many of them to an electronic device.

I wrote earlier about my concern that social media are shrinking our attention spans. And I recently read a complementary piece in the Washington Post by Naomi S. Baron of American University ( in which she warns that trying to read meaningful literature as an e-book also poses problems. Her main point: once you’re in digital wonderland, the temptation to follow hyperlinks or just check on text messages or email or shop for something will threaten your ability to concentrate on the long-form piece of writing in front of you, and your comprehension and memory for that material will be reduced. (Studies have found that many people check social media and email as much as forty times an hour. How well can you concentrate if you’re interrupting the author’s stream of thought that often?)

Our infatuation with all of these wonderful devices in the present moment makes us resistant to envisioning the long term impact they will have on us cognitively and even socially. I can assure you the clever people inventing them aren’t worried about that at all. They just want to sell phones and apps. So it’s up to us to exercise (or develop) some discipline in our relationship to technology to preserve our own intelligence. If we don’t, I think we will regret it. Our lives and our relationships will be better, in the long run, if we do.


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