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The Brain Next to Us

The combination of decision making and using our smartphones could be putting a huge tax on our brains

We rely on our phones in various aspects of life, it reminds us of our tasks, reads books to us, and when in doubt we open it to access the world wide web for a quick search that will help us with finding the right information and make a decision. Letting our phones do some of the day to day heavy lifting does make life much easier, and more efficient at times.

Alex Zalben took it one step further and asked his Twitter followers to predict their year ahead using their phones, by typing “In 2019 I am going to” before hitting the spacebar to complete the sentence. As you can imagine, it went viral with prompting hilarious responses from his users. This is one decision I doubt any of his followers will actually comply in. However, I am sure we are not so far away from the day this will not sound so far fetched. We make decisions all the time, Alex tried to help us make one less decision with the help of the smartphone. As they are so integrated in our lives, our phones became our extension — but where should we draw the line? Should we also use them for making decisions?

Decisions making — Mechanics first

When we make decisions our brain relies on two separate networks. One, that measures the risk versus reward and determines the overall value of a choice, while the other guides us on how to behave.

Ralph Adolphs, a professor of psychology at Caltech and the co-author of a study on that subject tries to explain how it works, how we make decisions. He describes the distinction by using a grocery shopping scenario: “Your valuation network is always providing you with information about what’s rewarding around you — the things you want to buy — but also lots of distracting things like junk food and other items popping into your vision off the shelves.” Cognitive control is what keeps this network in check, making sure you eliminate what you do not need. “To be able to get to the checkout counter with what you planned, you need to maintain a goal in mind, such as perhaps only buying the salad you needed for dinner…That’s your cognitive control network maintaining an overall goal despite lots of distractions.”

I like how Adolphs simplify the process and describe how our brain function when we make a decision. But once we interfere in the process by adding our phone to the mix, we change how things work. Not allowing our brain to exercise and do its job can be harmful. Yes, our phones do make life easier, but eliminating the thought process of choosing, i.e. relying on it all the time can make our brains sicker and lazier.

Researches recently showed that the smarter and more analytical thinkers are actually those who spend less time on their phones, in particular on the internet googling information.

Analytical thinkers second-guess themselves and analyze a problem in a more logical sort of way. They are the ones choosing the hard way over the easy way and it pays off.

Nathaniel Barr, one of the other lead authors to the paper explains how “Decades of research has revealed that humans are eager to avoid expending effort when problem-solving and it seems likely that people will increasingly use their smartphones as an extended mind”.

Adding that “Our reliance on smartphones and other devices will likely only continue to rise. [But] it’s important to understand how smartphones affect and relate to human psychology before these technologies are so fully ingrained that it’s hard to recall what life was like without them”. He continues and warns — “we may already be at that point”.

What can we do?

Does it mean that using your phone and googling causes you to be “dumber”? Probably not, but one cannot ignore the connection found between less analytical thinking and more smartphone scrolling.

Here are some of my tips to help keep you sharp, and in a balanced state with your device:

Check your brain before you check the internet — Just as you are about to open a browsed and Google, pause, dig deep in your knowledge base. You may know the answer.

Hit the books — If you can, open a book vs a search engine. It might be more time consuming but it will pay off, the act of searching helps exercising your brain.

Choose the physical book — Besides adding screen time, consuming new information on your phone can be a terrible way to learn. Researchers have shown that people who take in complex information from a book, instead of on a screen, develop deeper comprehension, and engage in more conceptual thinking, too.

Brain games — There are plenty of brain game apps to help exercise your brain and not numb it. I just want you to take it with a grain of salt, as there are contradicting researches on this area.

Last but not least — Sleep better, exercise regularly, eat better — that’s the sort of thing we should be focusing on to nourish our brains.

Everyday we face with so many decisions we need to make. It is easier to reach out for our little helper. Some shortcuts work, but make sure not to rely on your phone completely. It is your life, own it!

BTW — In Alex’ challenge my 2019 resolution came out to be “In 2019 I’m going to call you back”📞😎.

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