Shocking Study Shows Why Technology Is Not Really Making Us Smarter


Anthony Wing Kosner, Contributor

July 7, 2014

According to Google, most Android users check their phones 150 times a day. Wearable technologies like smart watches and Google Glass may eventually make us check our phones less often, but will almost certainly drive up the average user’s digital interruptions each day. Early users of Android Wear who were given Samsung Gear Live or LG G Watches at Google I/O report their wrists “constantly buzzing.” Digital technology has certainly increased the quantity of our mental stimulation, but what about the quality?

A well-publicized study led by Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at University of Virginia, reached a “shocking” conclusion. People have become so uncomfortable being alone with their own thoughts that many would prefer giving themselves small electric shocks to being “bored.” In the study Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind, published in Science today, researcher confront contemporary American’s discomfort with their own minds. ”We have this big brain full of pleasant memories, and we’re able to tell ourselves stories and make up fantasies,” Wilson tells the Washington Post. “But despite that, we kept finding that people didn’t like it much and found it hard.” Not surprisingly, men found this alone time more difficult than women. Only 25% of the women in the final experiment of the study gave themselves shocks during a 15-minute period versus 66% of the men. One outlier male (whose data was removed from the final results) gave himself an astounding 190 shocks during that time!

The study was designed to test people’s ability to daydream, to sustain unstructured mental activity. The people selected for the survey varied in age and use of electronics, so smartphone use is not directly implicated in the results, but the underlying causes of this unsettledness are the same. “We wouldn’t crave these things if we weren’t in need of distractions,” Wilson says. “But having so many available keeps us from learning how to disengage.” Although people who knew how to meditate performed better on the test, using social media less did not correlate with better daydreaming.

There is a broader conclusion that can be drawn from these experiments that raises questions about the goals of our technological progress. The great power of technology is abstraction, and yet our ability for abstract thought is being undermined by the constant intrusions of digital technology in our mental processes. This is not just a trivial concern. The use of mobile devices among younger and younger children may have serious unintended consequences for the ability of future generations to make use of our rapidly increasing computational capabilities. iPads are being rapidly deployed in middle and high schools, but the results, in my own experience, are not encouraging. Increased game and social media usage seem to be much more prevalent than engagement in the more complex cognitive processes that digital technology are supposed to enable.

Along with the hand waving about STEM education and the profusion of online methods to learn to code, it is unclear that as a culture we are addressing the underlying competencies required to make use of amazing tools like the just-released Wolfram Programming Cloud. Sheer computational power needs to be harnessed by abstract, logical ideas of the sort that are hard to compose if you are checking your smartphone 150 times a day.

Interestingly, a new app called Moment “automatically tracks how much you use your phone each day,” so you can set limits and restore “balance in your life.” Developer Kevin Holesh explains, “I wrote Moment for myself. I find myself ignoring my family and friends in favor of my iPhone.” He is not a Luddite and claims, “My iPhone has improved my life in a number of ways and I carry it around with me everywhere I go. Sometimes I use it too much, and my eyes and mind start to go numb. I pull out my iPhone to combat boredom. Instead, I could be taking a deep breath and looking at the world around me.” Sounds like the people in Wilson’s study could use Holesh’s app!

When we think about whether mobile technology and apps are really improving our lives, this cognitive component is really important. We can call out the individual things that our iPhones or Androids enable us to do and imagine all of the things that wearables and the Internet of Things can add, but are they all making us happier or smarter? Unfortunately, I think not. And in fact, to really make use of all of these wondrous products of our collective imagination we will need to make a point of learning to put them down some of the time and develop the capabilities of our unaided minds.

That people in an advanced economy would choose to give themselves electric shocks instead of sitting peacefully in the company of their own minds is indeed shocking. We need more than reminders about how much we are using technology to get us to use it more selectively. We need reasons to actively cultivate abstract mental activity for its own sake. A game of chess, anyone?

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