Using Smartphones Is Reprogramming Our Brains

By Joelle Renstrom | Updated

touchtypeAs 2014 draws to a close, many people contemplate resolutions for next year. I can get a little carried away when it comes to my goals to the extent that remembering them causes me some stress (it’s pretty hard to, say, become fluent in Mandarin over the course of one year while living in the U.S.). More and more, my goals involve technology—learning about it and experimenting with it, sure, but I’m increasingly resolved to limit my interactions with it, particularly on social media (thanks, Black Mirror), and to spend more time reading actual books. Part of this is due to recent studies that suggest just how bad it is to spend so much time in front of a screen, particularly before bed, as well as a new study that offers insight into how spending so much time on our devices is reprogramming our brains.

The screen-sleep connection isn’t a new one, though its seriousness has recently come to light in recent studies, particularly one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that anyone whose winding down ritual involves using a smartphone, eReader, computer, or most types of TV might be doing themselves serious sleep damage. Scientists already knew that the light from the screen suppresses sleep-inducing melatonin, which makes it tough for people to fall asleep. But the new study indicates “comprehensive results of a direct comparison between reading with a light-emitting device and reading a printed book and the consequences on sleep.” In a two-week study, people who read on an iPad before bed took longer to fall asleep, got less REM sleep, and produced less melatonin than print book readers. They also felt more tired after 8 hours of sleep.

Given that lack of sleep has a slew of negative health consequences, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, and given that melatonin suppression can increase one’s risk of cancer, it’s pretty clear that switching to print books before bed is a good idea. But really, we knew that already—or at least had some inkling. What I didn’t know at all was that touch-typing on a smartphone has now been shown to change the human brain.

Researchers at the University of Zurich and the University of Fribourg focused on the shift when it comes to inputting information into a device—specifically, using the thumbs to type and swiping with the index finger. Of course, both of those habits were preceded by the more general use of keypads for texting and typing, but it seems that the use of the thumb has had a particularly marked effect. It makes sense, if you think about it—people who use their fingers a lot, such as violinists, develop bigger regions in the somatosensory cortex, which links the fingers movements to the brain’s processing ability. It’s similar to athletes developing not only bigger muscles, but larger lung capacities and other physical abilities—our bodies and our brains are flexible, and with practice, we can change them.

Researchers measured brain activity of 37 people, all of whom are right-handed. 26 of them use smartphone touchscreens and 11 use older keypads. The team was able to monitor brain activity via electrodes, and observed that the more recently someone had used a smartphone, the stronger the signal in the brain in the area that involves thumb movement.

The study, recently published in Current Biology, doesn’t talk about the implications of its findings, or how they might affect our health—I’m not sure that an enlarged cortical region corresponding to frequent thumb movement is necessarily a bad thing, but who knows? What’s clear is that our habits do change our brains, and thus, change the way we think and interact in the world. I’d rather make those decisions consciously than have them made for me via my technological habits, but as with most resolutions, easier said than done.