Our Smartphones, Ourselves

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 17 2015 @ 7:34am

A new study suggests the mere presence of an iPhone improves test-takers’ performance:

[P]articipants were placed in a cubicle and asked to perform word search puzzles. Researchers monitored their anxiety levels, heart rate, and blood pressure while the subjects had their iPhones with them. Then, the real experiment began. Researchers told participants that their iPhones were causing interference with the blood pressure cuff and asked them to move their phones. The phones were placed in a nearby cubicle close enough to be within eyeshot and earshot of each subject. Next, the researchers called the subjects’ phones—now placed out of reach—while they were working on the puzzle. Immediately afterwards, they collected the same data.

The results changed dramatically. Not only did the participants’ puzzle performance decline significantly while the phones were off-limits, but their anxiety levels, blood pressure and heart rates skyrocketed.

Of course, students aren’t representative of all people, but Russell Clayton, a doctoral candidate who led the study, thinks the results can tell us something about how we see our phones. “iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of selves such as that when separated, we experience a lessing of ‘self’ and a negative physiological state,” he writes. Clayton and his co-authors suggest that having phones nearby may help smartphone owners perform better during tasks that require undivided attention.

Julian Baggini expands on that last point, drawing on the “extended mind” hypothesis of philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark, which proposes “that the boundaries of the human mind might extend beyond the skull”:

The extended mind thesis simply points to the fact that we also use things outside of our bodies in the same way. We don’t store all our memories in our brains: we put some in phone books, photo albums and diaries. We don’t just use fingers to count: we use calculators and abacuses. If we’re trying to think things through, we may physically as well as mentally list the pros and cons to help weigh them up.

Some find our increased reliance on such mental prosthetics troubling. Will a generation that can google everything, everywhere, grow up unable to remember anything? Any gains should outweigh the losses. Brain power is a finite resource and we don’t want to use it all up on data storage and retrieval. After all, savants who remember everything often understand very little. Being able to outsource some of the grunt work of cognition frees up our brains to do the interesting, creative processing of the information. The best way of keeping our minds engaged and active might well be to let them extend far outside our skulls.