I had to sit an exam again recently, one of tens I have had to take in my life; we used to take three every three months for all of medical school. A short study session would be three hours. A long one a whole day. If concentration were a muscle, I used to be a champion lifter.
Flash forward 10 years and I sat down to revise for this one like any other. Textbook opened, laptop charged, coffee loaded. Two minutes in, I picked up my phone, checked my mail, jumped on Twitter, put it down again. Back to the book, and I had to re-read the sentence again. I stared at my own notes blankly and picked up my phone again. Twenty minutes passed and I had done nothing. With a rising panic, I realised my ability to concentrate had completely deserted me.
What happened to my brain? Facebook came in to widespread use the year I started medical school, in 2006, and the use of social media and smartphone use has exploded since. I can’t help but link these two. Think about the volume of extra information you consumed today that you wouldn’t have done even ten years ago: notifications, timeline posts, text messages, Tweets and Grams. What effect is an infinite stream of information having on your brain? Is your phone making you sick?
I am trying to think of my phone as at least as harmful to my health as a cheeseburger, possibly a cigarette.
The link between mobile phone use and organic disease has yet to be borne out in major clinical studies. Poor mental health on the other hand is a well-recognised association with phone use: depression, anxiety, stress and poor-sleep have all been linked to smartphone overuse. I think back to the heights of my social media use and see a correlation I previously attributed to events at the time: the junior doctors’ strike, the recent general election, but now I wonder if it was at least partially made worse by my phone.
And even if our phones aren’t making us actually sick, they might be making us stupid.
We know that even the smallest distractions, for example a hyperlink in a sentence, can severely impair your ability to retain and understand the text as a whole. Now we live in a state of near constant distraction, flitting from focus to focus like a digital hummingbird, never stopping anywhere for long enough to really think. For example, I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed right now, emphasis on “scrolling”. At an average speed I am reading a single Tweet a second, or even less than a whole tweet. In my brain I am reading, comprehending, referencing what I already know about this, and then deciding if I want to like, retweet or comment, before moving on, all within the space of a few milliseconds. I did this perhaps 100-150 times, in the bad old days, perhaps 20-30 times a day. Without a Twitter account that’s 4500 cognitive “transactions” I wouldn’t otherwise make, every day. What else could I “spend” that brain power on?
Worse, I found my concentration and attention permanently impaired, unable to start and finish a task without my frenzied brain pushing me to find something new or do something else, after just minutes. The average web user now spends only 15 seconds on a webpage. Does that sound like a rational or functioning brain to you? These very repetitive and tiny cognitive tasks are like vibrating your brain at a high frequency, for a very long time, and it will start to re-wire in response: wanting new information, quicker and quicker, over and over again, like an addiction. This is why using your smartphone is both exhilarating and paralysing; you are going to a million places a minute and coming straight back again, effectively going nowhere.
Think about all the times you lost your phone – the initial panic, the sense of dread, the very quick settling, and then the immense relief. That’s a comedown, as if from any other drug. We are drunk on the Internet. This isn’t a fault in our characters, it’s a fault in our biology. As 82% of this country use smartphones, a fault in our society as well.
As a country we have never been more divided. Less and less willing to compromise, the middle-ground has all but disappeared. Subtlety and context, deeper understanding requiring sustained attention to grasp, seem to have dissipated from every debate. Unscrupulous politicians take advantage of this fevered environment, declaring big, bold and false headlines, taking up those 15 seconds of attention and knowing most will never look further.
Where once I found my phone a life-saving essential, it now burns uncomfortably in my pocket. We’ve never spent more time thinking about what we ingest in to our bodies but perhaps we should start to think in the same way about our brains. The difference is that when it comes to sustenance, our brains are like the open mouths of whales, indiscriminately hoovering up everything we come in to contact with. Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am”. But who are you if someone else is firing content into your brain from across the Internet, even just for the tiniest fraction of a second?
Do I have a solution? I put my phone in a box by the front door now, try not to have it near me as much as possible at home. I don’t take it to bed. I am trying to think of it as at least as harmful to my health as a cheeseburger, possibly a cigarette. I have really felt the difference, and if you’ve made it to the end of this article, perhaps you will too.
Dominic Pimenta is a cardiology registrar and author. He tweets at @juniordrblog.