When was the last time you did maths in your head? Dividing up the bill at a restaurant has become much easier now that everyone has a smartphone and there’s no need for mental acrobatics. Likewise, if you’re debating a point with a friend and you reach an impasse (or even just get a bit tired of arguing), you can easily pull out your smartphone and find out who’s right.
A group of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have been studying this phenomenon among smartphone users, and have published an interesting study entitled The brain in your pocket: Evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking.
Barr et al frame smartphone usage as an example of what they term the ‘extended mind’. What does this mean?
Like we were saying before, it means that we no longer rely on our brains for some of the analytical types of thinking that can easily be passed on to a smartphone. Their study relies on already existing data which suggest that, given the choice, people will forego analytical thinking, which requires a significant level of effort, in lieu of quick and easy intuition.
Across three studies, it was discovered that people who are generally prone to thinking more intuitively and less analytically when given problems to test their reasoning abilities were more likely to rely on their smartphones for information in day-to-day life. However, the amount of time spent using a smartphone for entertainment or social networking had no effect, and nor did proneness to boredom.
Instead, it seems that people, and particularly those who rely on a more intuitive way of thinking generally, are using their smartphones as a sort of extension of their minds, passing on certain higher cognitive functions such as analytical and mathematical skills to their devices.
The full study can be accessed in volume 48 of Computers in Human Behaviour.