Smartphones May Be Ruining Our Brains. What Should Business Leaders Do?

Recent research shows that as smartphone use grows, human intellect weakens, a development with gigantic business implications. What should business leaders do?

Are smartphones turning our brains into mush?

This is a question I’ve long considered, but a lengthy essay published last weekend in The Wall Street Journal on the topic provided the most convincing — and frightening — answer to date.

And that answer is a resounding yes.

Well, sort of.

The essay, written by Nicholas Carr, an esteemed author who has published numerous books on technology, business and culture, profiled a number of academic studies showing that as our brains grow more dependent on technology, our intellect weakens.

“Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways,” Carr writes, “but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices.”

Some of the findings proving this case in Carr’s essay are unsurprising. For instance, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging cognitive task, their focus wavers — and their work suffers as a result, whether they check their phones or not.

Additionally, another 2015 study Carr profiles, involving 41 iPhone users and which appeared in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, showed that when people hear their phone ring but aren’t able to answer it, their blood pressure rises, pulse quickens and problem-solving skills decline.

I’m sure many people can relate to these findings. I for one can attest that my phone is constantly a distraction as I’m working. For this reason I go to great lengths to make sure that it is silenced, turned off or out of sight and in a bag while I’m doing my most important work (like writing this column).

It’s also not surprising that the constant beeping and buzzing of a smartphone is capable of producing such physiological reactions to the human body and brain. What is surprising is that the negative affects smartphones have on our brains don’t end there.

As Carr’s essay goes on to show, other academic studies have proven that smartphone use has become such a big part of people’s everyday lives that the mere presence of one — even if stowed away — has a tremendous influence over our thinking and performance.

The most striking example of this comes from Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin. According to Carr, two years ago Ward, along with Kristen Duke and Ayelet Gneezy from the University of California at San Diego, and Disney Research Behavioral Scientist Maarten Bos, recruited 520 undergraduate students at UCSD and gave them two standard tests of intellectual acuity.

As Carr writes: “One test gauged ‘available cognitive capacity,’ a measure of how fully a person’s mind can focus on a particular task. The second assessed ‘fluid intelligence,’ a person’s ability to interpret and solve an unfamiliar problem.”

The only variable in the experiment was the location of the subjects’ smartphones. Some of the students were asked to place their phones in front of them on their desks, while others were told to put them in their pockets or bags, and others were required to leave their phones in a different room altogether.

At this point, you can probably imagine what the results showed. In both tests, the people whose phones were in view posted the worst test scores, while those who left their phones in an entirely different room scored the best. Meanwhile, the students who kept their phones in their pockets or bags inside the room as they took the tests scored in the middle.

As the study showed, the physical distance between a person and their smartphone has a big influence on that person’s brainpower. In short, the closer you are physically to your smartphone, even if it is turned off, the worse off your cognitive performance.

But wait, it doesn’t end there.

The essay continues to dive into some of the more profound effects on our brains that come with the constant connectivity of a smartphone.

In some instances, because we’re constantly able to retrieve information via the internet from our smartphones, we’re led to believe that we’re smarter than we actually are. It is often joked about that people don’t need to learn certain skills these days because we have constant access to devices that do these things for us. And, as Carr’s essay points out, the joke is often on us, as he argues there is a legitimate drawback to this particular form of cognitive laziness.

It’s not so much about basking in the fact that we no longer need to memorize things the way that we used to as it is about realizing the ancillary ways that influences our ability to think.

In other words, because we’ve given up needing to learn many cognitive skills related to memory and other basic brain functions — for instance, basic arithmetic, sense of direction or memory — we’ve developed tendencies that could potentially get in the way of our ability to think on a deeper level. This has a potentially tremendous influence over our ability to innovate, problem solve and, in general, perform at our optimal levels.

More worrisome is that these affects don’t just end with brainpower but in our ability to communicate and relate to other human beings. As Carr’s essay points out, again citing various academic studies, smartphone use also has a major influence over our basic communication skills and how we relate to and build meaningful connections with other humans.

So, what does this mean for business?

On the one hand, the workplace has benefitted mightily from the tools and capabilities brought to us by smartphones and other devices and the software that runs on them. But on the other hand, as Carr’s essay shows, there are major unintended consequences that these tools bring that have a negative effect on business, particularly around innovation.

Think of the irony: The smartphone is perhaps the most important innovation of the last generation, but would Apple’s Steve Jobs have been able to come up with it if he were constantly distracted by the phone’s constant beeping and buzzing. Thankfully for him, the iPhone didn’t exist in the years leading up to its launch in 2007, so he was distraction free.

The big lesson I took away after reading this is that people need to create intentional time and space away from their smartphones. Taking advantage of the benefits of smartphone use shouldn’t cease entirely, but people should make sure to create smartphone-free time so they can still develop important deeper thinking and cognitive skills, not to mention the ability to connect with other people socially. Not only should this happen when you’re doing your most important work, but during other times as well.

Similarly, companies need to be aware of these findings and allow their workers to disconnect accordingly. Not only will this help individual employees perform better on the job, but it will also collectivity boost the performance of the entire organization.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email