Smartphone Use Alters Brain Activity

Using your phone actually changes your brain. Jhaymesisviphotography [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Learning to send texts and surf the Web on a smartphone isn’t nearly as complicated as learning to play the violin, but research reveals the two affect the brain in a similar way.

In a paper recently published in Current Biology, neuroscientist Arko Ghosh of the University of Zurich writes that both using a smartphone and playing an instrument alter the parts of our brains that control finger movements.

"Smartphones offer us an opportunity to understand how normal life shapes the brains of ordinary people," he writes.

Every part of the body has a specific processing area in the center of your brain, and these areas can change. For example, the area of the brain that governs finger movements is larger in violinists because they use that part of the somatosensory cortex more.

Ghosh was interested in whether all our typing and swiping with smartphones could have a similar effect on the brain, so he measured electrical activity in the brains of 37 right-handed people. Twenty-six of the participants used touch-screen smartphones, while 11 used conventional keypad phones.

He found there was increased touch-related cortical activity among the smartphone users and that those who used their phones most often and most recently exhibited the strongest brain changes.

The study also revealed that the smartphone users relied more on the area of the cortex associated with the thumb. However, there were also significant effects on the brain areas associated with the index finger and middle finger.

The data showed no relationship between brain signals and how long participants had been using smartphones.

Ghosh doesn’t draw any conclusions about how these brain changes could impact us, but he notes that because smartphone use can alter our brains relatively quickly, his research could lead to further studies about how technology shapes the way we process information.

"I think first we must appreciate how common personal digital devices are and how densely people use them," he writes. "What this means for us neuroscientists is that the digital history we carry in our pockets has an enormous amount of information on how we use our fingertips and more."