Alain de Botton, in his book Religion For Atheists, says the following:  "It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much.  The deep, immersive thinking which produced many of civilization's most important achievements has come under unprecedented assault."

I have often written with a jaundiced eye, if not quite a Luddite sensibility, on social media and technology.  ["What Is The Real Effect Of Using Facebook?"] But we have become so habituated to the febrile monkey mind excitement of our gadgets that they are beginning to affect us even when they are shut down.

Case in point, a recent article in Harvard Business Review titled "Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking."  Research conducted by Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos conclude that merely having one's own smartphone nearby may well affect your cognitive abilities--what these researchers call "fluid intelligence" or people's ability to reason and solve novel problems. (In other words, the original thinking required each day by creative business women and men to survive and prosper.)

The Duke, Ward, Gneezy, and Bos study took 800 people divided into three groups, who were asked to complete complex cognitive tasks.  They state:

"The results were striking:  individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets.  In last place were those whose phones were on their desks.  We saw similar results when participants' phones were turned off:  people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room.  Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals' cognitive capacity--on par with effects of lacking sleep."

Put differently, just the presence of our smartphones can affect us negatively, even if "we aren't using them.  Even when we aren't looking at them.  Even when they are face down.  And even when they are powered off."

The researchers describe something they call a "phantom buzz".  This means you are constantly feeling the habitual pull of your technology and listening for it, even when it is off. Attempts to block or resist this pull take a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities.

Obviously we all need the technical usefulness and efficiency of our smartphones.  Eliminating them is not a reasonable option.  However, a few common sense actions can reduce the vexatious distraction of the pull of the smartphone.  Certainly asking employees to leave their phones outside any meeting is a no brainer.  Likewise, any entrepreneurial owner may want to physically separate herself from her phone when deeper, concentrated thinking or serious problem solving needs to be done.

Amit Ray, author of Yoga: The Science of Well-Being, says "The secret of concentration is to shut down the other windows."  Thank you, Amit.

Published on: May 14, 2018
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