Butterfly brain: why smartphones are making us stupid


Maria Lally

August 24, 2015

Like most of us, Maria Lally spends most of her life flitting from her phone to her laptop and back again, but is it really making her less smart?

Ever waited impatiently for a reply to an email, only to discover you’d got distracted before hitting ‘send’ in the first place? Or walked into a room only to forget… hang on, why am I here?

As a writer working from home, my days often go a little something like this… check emails, a bit of writing, check Facebook. A bit more writing, more emails, check the news online, a bit of writing, a bit of Twitter, a bit more writing…

It’s not that I’m work-shy, far from it, but I rarely seem able to spend longer than three minutes on any one task before flitting off to the next . And my distractibility doesn’t end when my working day does – I’ve wasted whole evenings on the sofa, phone in hand, laptop close by, falling down an online rabbit hole of mindless information as I flit between several types of social media, eBay, Right Move (I’m not even thinking of moving) and r andom Googling sessions of anything and everything that crosses my mind, with the television on in the background. In fact, if my twitter feed is anything to go by, I’m not the only one who rarely watches anything anymore without also browsing on my phone.

No wonder an already-infamous study from Microsoft, in May, found today’s digital lifestyles are having such a detrimental impact on our concentration levels that our attention span has now fallen to below that of a goldfish. Humans now stay focused for just eight seconds, before being distracted by news alerts, social media, emails and so on – a fall from 12 seconds in 2000.

This week, a study by De Montfort University published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour has gone further, directly linking the number of times a person uses the internet or their mobile phone with their likelihood of experiencing a range of ‘cognitive failures’ or mental blunders.

Whether the most digitally active people are more distracted because of their excessive online activity, or the other way around – that they are more drawn to these activities because they naturally have short attention spans – is unclear at this stage (perhaps scientists haven’t got round to that bit, yet). But lead researcher, Dr Lee Hadlington suspects a vicious circle: that distractible individuals become even more so as they become overly reliant on their mobile devices.

“Our brains are designed to pick up on what’s new or changing around us,” explains Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute in New York and author of new book Two Awesome Hours, in which he offers science-based strategies to optimise your productivity. “In the digital world, things are changing and being posted every few seconds. News sites and social media are also – and purposefully – designed in an easily digestible way that draws us in. It’s no wonder so many of us have butterfly brains.”

But he counters that distractibility might not be as bad news as first thought. “A well functioning brain should wander every few minutes,” says Josh. “It makes us more creative and stops our brain from burning out. So don’t resist it. However, the mistake many of us are now making is when we take a break from ‘work information’ we replace it with an endless stream of information from social media or the news or whatever else is online. Digital breaks don’t have an end point – you can spend hours flitting around and then you feel overloaded. Or you can stay up late, mindlessly browsing, even when you’re exhausted.”

He adds that it’s not just the endless stream, but the type of information we’re flitting between, that takes its toll on our state of mind. “Think about it,” says Josh. “If you click on a news story about a war that’s heartbreaking, then a political leader you feel frustrated by, then a social media photo that makes you feel inadequate, no wonder you feel spent and stressed.”

So how to break the cycle – without breaking our smartphones? Besides a digital curfew, Josh recommends taking non-digital breaks during the day – whether a walk, a coffee, or even just staring out the window and people watching. “All these things have a built-in end point,” he explains. “The walk will end, the coffee will finish, people-watching gets boring and then you drift back to work feeling refreshed and with a re-booted brain.”

Even Andy Puddicombe, mindfulness ‘guru’ and founder of meditation app Headspace, doesn’t advocate a total digital detox. “The constant demands of alerts, notifications and social networks can leave us feeling worn out,” he acknowledges. “And under those conditions is can be tempting to reject technology altogether. But an “all or nothing” approach rarely works. Not to mention that if we’re simply replacing being completely obsessed by using technology to being completely obsessed by not using it, we’re still obsessed . It’s not a case of technology [itals] or [itals] mindfulness, rather a mindful use of technology.”

Five ways to calm butterfly brain 1. Go back to black

If you can’t resist spending the hours before bed on your phone, reverse the settings. ‘You can reverse the contrasts on your phone or tablet (on an iPhone: Settings>General>Accessibility>Invert colours) so instead of black writing on a white background you have white writing on a black background,’ says J. Bruce Morton, professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute in Canada. This massively reduces the blue light that affects your brain’s cyclic rhythm, disrupting your sleep/wake cycle.

2. Get moving

‘It may take a chunk out of your day, but exercise has been proven to sharpen your mind and increase your concentration,’ says Josh. ‘So you’ll actually get more done in less time on the days you take a long lunch to go to the gym.’

3. Eat well

“Good diet can help calm a busy mind,” says trainer James Duigan, author of the Clean & Lean Diet. “For example, a study from Ohio State University found that foods rich in omega-3 (like salmon and tuna) can help decrease anxiety. Whereas sugary foods and too much caffeine (one or two cups are fine) make your mind busier and less able to focus.”

4. Keep company

A study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine found that anxiety levels rise after six hours of social isolation, due to changes in brain hormones. So if you work from home take your laptop to a coffee shop for an hour or book in regular work meetings or coffees with friends.

5. Leave the easy tasks to the end of the day

“Leave your least important and easiest job to the end of the day,” suggests J.Bruce Morton. “The last half hour or hour of a working day is often spent flitting around from task to task because you’re tired. Fill that space with one simple task instead.”

This article was written by Maria Lally from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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