· Images By Tang Ming Tung
These handheld wonders can make life easier — but is easier always better? Learn why it’s worth the time and effort to take back a few basic tasks.
Smartphones just keep getting smarter. We can now monitor our heart rates, adjust our thermostats, and refinance our mortgages with the same handheld devices we use to make calls, take pictures, look up recipes, check the weather, and dash off a message to friends in Europe.
Constantly relying on our smart-phones to do so much heavy lifting has left us with lives that are increasingly free from what Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, refers to as “friction.”
But as lovely as a frictionless life might seem to be, it comes at a cost. By automating or streamlining so many tasks, we may begin to lose certain skills and capacities — not to mention the satisfaction of using our own wits to overcome everyday challenges. After all, it’s not just our bodies that need regular exercise; our brains do, too. Eliminating friction altogether, Carr writes, “can sap us not only of know-how but of our sense that know-how is something important and worth cultivating.”
With millions of terabytes of data and an ever-expanding range of functionality at our fingertips, there’s no going back to pre-smartphone days. We can, however, be more discriminating about what type of friction we choose to avoid. The following smartphone tools and features have become nearly indispensable for many people. But resisting the temptation to always rely on them can help us claim a greater sense of engagement in our daily lives — and boost the health of our brains.
Smartphone power: Having instant access to the name of the actor from that movie. You know . . . what’s-his-name?
Brainpower: Stimulating memory and problem-solving skills, and enjoying the sense of accomplishment that comes from being the first to blurt out, “James Earl Jones!”
Though tempting, the ability to quickly find the answer to seemingly any question might have a downside, as Carr argues in his now-classic 2008 Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” While noting that major technological advances have always elicited some hand wringing from the old guard, Carr explains that technologies like search engines (now residing in our handy smartphones) cause our brains to actually process information differently — and not always for the better.
“We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where that information can be found,” write the authors of a recent study published in the journal Science. Which leads to a question: Is access to information the same as knowledge — or wisdom — drawn from memory and experience?
Try this: Allow your brain to rely on its own search engine — even if it seems to operate at the speed of an old 28.8-kilobyte modem. Or carry a notepad and compile a list of all the things you’d like to Google, and research them all at once.
Smartphone power: Receiving up-to-the-minute notices on meetings and appointments.
Brainpower: Gaining greater awareness of — and control over — your own time and schedule.
Your e-calendar allows colleagues to pull you into meetings whenever there’s an opening in your day. You can even “subscribe” to automated calendars that conveniently populate your schedule, albeit without regard to conflicts. In the process, it’s easy to lose track of where your time goes.
When you pair electronic calen-daring with the mobility of your smartphone, you may feel even more helpless against the demands of your schedule. “The nature of the device is that you can usually view only one day at a time, and that makes it challenging to see — literally — the bigger picture of how you’re spending your time and what’s pulling you out of focus,” says St. Louis–based executive coach Mary Kutheis.
Try this: Go back to a paper calendar or datebook if you aren’t required to be digitally connected to others; manually managing your schedule can give you a greater sense of control. Or print weekly and monthly views of your electronic calendar. This will allow you to notice upcoming events and eliminate noncritical appointments.
Maps/Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
Smartphone power: Harnessing high-tech satellites to find the closest Starbucks.
Brainpower: Developing wayfinding autonomy while building new neural pathways in your brain.
Park rangers in Death Valley, Calif., have a name for the tragic consequences that frequently result when drivers blindly follow smartphone directions: Death by GPS. Not only can reclaiming your own navigation skills be potentially lifesaving, but it could be a brain builder, as well.
Traveling without a GPS can improve the efficiency of your hippocampus, even increasing gray matter in that area of your brain, according to research from McGill University. (More gray matter in the hippocampus might also prevent memory loss.) In a recent study, in fact, London taxi drivers, who navigate that complex city on brainpower alone, were shown to have a greater-than-average volume of gray matter in the parts of their brains that control spatial relationships.
Try this: The next time you drive somewhere you’ve never been, plot your course on a real map, consulting it as you go. Or set aside your phone every now and then to see if you can find a new way to a familiar destination — just to train your powers of navigation and perception.
News and Information
Smartphone power: Enjoying a steady stream of listicles, late-breaking news nuggets, and short, shiny blasts of gossip.
Brainpower: Challenging your comprehension of complex issues by taking deeper dives into current affairs.
Newsfeed apps on your smartphone serve up snippets meant to distract your brain for a brief time, not engage it in deeper, higher-level thinking, says John Grohol, PsyD, founder and CEO of PsychCentral.com, an online mental-health resource. “If you want to keep your brain healthy and potentially help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with diseases like dementia, you need to challenge yourself with some long-form articles on meatier subjects,” he says.
Deep-level reading and analysis strengthens, stretches, and builds complex frontal-lobe connections, helping your brain resist deterioration, says neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, author of Make Your Brain Smarter. A steady diet of easy-to-digest infotainment is about as good for your brain as jelly beans are for your body.
Try this: Ramp up your reading game. Grohol suggests spending 90 percent of your reading time digesting deeper fare (4,000 words or longer) and a mere 10 percent glancing at “Internet glitter.” Reach for a magazine or book instead of your phone.
Smartphone power: Snapping photos of anything, anytime, anywhere.
Brainpower: Composing artful creations while paying close attention to your surroundings.
Returning from a weeklong trip to a wild beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., commercial photographer Bill Kelley had a revelation about our photo-taking mindset. “With smartphone cameras, people snap away repeatedly, but they often don’t see what they’re photographing,” he says. “I spent a day sitting in one location, shooting carefully considered photographs of the same things, and the images I got back were phenomenal.”
While smartphone cameras fulfill our desire for immediacy, “sometimes it’s a good idea to slow down and immerse ourselves in the moment,” says Kelley. The result could be a timeless work of art, not just another snap to post on Instagram.
Try this: Dust off your old “regular” digital — or even film — camera now and then just for fun. Using a real, devoted camera may help you think photographically and put an artistic touch into your images again. And even if you’re using your smartphone, take a few moments to artfully arrange the composition of your shot. Sit patiently in one location, taking just one or two shots every time the light or weather changes.