No one regrets in the last hour of their life “sorry that I didn’t respond faster to an e-mail”. But for some reason, people think that constantly checking e-mails on a smart device and answering them right away is something important. Touching the smartphone is an addiction, and neuroscientist Jaan Aru explains why touching the phone is one of the most mysterious and dangerous habits.
Why does the brain love to get addicted? The brain can be addicted to many different things. The reason is that it is evolutionary for the brain to learn important, correct, and new things.
These important and correct things in our evolutionary history are, for example, where to get some good crops, where to find a good, fresh place with good berries, and so on. If there is something very good about something, certain chemicals will be triggered in the brain, which will lead to the fact that this thing will be learned right away, that the place or the way you obtained the food will be remembered.
It is very important that if there is something very good, then to learn quickly and right away about it. The problem is that we bring this brain into a modern society, where something very good and enjoyable for the brain can be obtained by injection or… by moving your thumb.
This is the reason why our brain can be very addicted nowadays. Our society has well-regulated access to drugs. The availability of tobacco and alcohol is regulated; minors are completely prohibited.
But let’s take smart devices. They certainly are addictive to the brain. It can be argued that they are not as dangerous as alcohol or drugs. But in the case of a smart device, there is a problem that it is not regulated at all.
We even promote the fact that children can already use smart devices. No one would think of giving children alcohol, something addictive.
Is a smart device equal to alcohol?
For me, as a brain scientist, the smart device is even worse. Potentially, we will ruin the brains of the next generation. If you’ve used it, then that moving your thumb brings something good for your brain, and of course you won’t be bothered to listen to a teacher who’s going to be talking about an hour or more. You just can’t!
Your brain simply doesn’t understand why you need to do this. You get that nice input much more easily from the phone.
And how does the sense of addiction work at that moment?
If you are a smoker, for example, and you go out after eating, you will have the urge to smoke immediately because it is a habit and the brain is accustomed to behave like that.
But we can’t smoke in all places (In Estonia it’s forbidden to smoke in bars, pubs, etc.). With a smart device, however, we have no borders, we have this smart device in our pocket all the time. If the brain is addicted, it will manifest that no matter whether you are doing your job, in a school class, or driving a car, then you will have the idea that I will look at my smartphone.
This urge cannot be suppressed even if it is rationally known that it is really stupid to take out the smart device when driving. Even knowing that it’s dangerous, you take out the device and still look at the message. It’s an addiction.
So how can we get rid of it?
For all addictions, people overvalue their willpower. At the same time, strong willpower is not enough – you have to change your lifestyle. If you quit smoking, you leave the smoke breaks and find replacement activities; the addiction to smart devices goes the same way.
It is very consciously worth reducing the time spent on smart devices. Establish a simple procedure for yourself: when the working day ends, well, you would like to reduce a little bit of the workday tension, then look ten minutes at your Instagram and Facebook. But then turn the smart device off and put it away for two to three hours.
If you sit on your smartphone for 20 to 30 minutes, and, for example, your child comes to ask something and you say, “Ah, do what you want – mommy is resting a little bit”, then it’s showing signs of addiction.
Not to mention what an example you give to the child. Make sure you have certain rules. For example, if the children aren’t asleep, you don’t look at the smart device. And if the kids are asleep, you can take a little look again. But rules are not enough: you must also establish small punishments.
If you find yourself watching a smart device at this forbidden time, for example, you’ll donate 5 euros to this political party each time you most hate. As with any other addiction, these methods work. Obviously, the majority of those who have a smart device problem think that it’s still not so serious – we can freely be in the car park with the smart device and that’s no addiction. In addition, there are still work things: we have very important work and e-mails that have to be looked at all the time.
One characteristic of addiction is that a person justifies why he or she should do something. The most important step is to understand the problem. One thing to do is to note how many minutes or hours you spend on your smart device. If you write it up, you will see that this is an enormously large number and you will understand the problem. The human brain can focus on amazing things. Every person has this potential. But I see how people simply waste that potential while on a smart device.
I want to stress that in my estimation it is normal and good if, for instance, at work the ideas have run out and you just look at the smart device for a few minutes. It’ll help the brain rest a little.
The problem starts when you stay there. In any way or unintentionally, in the modern world, the need for information has grown. How do you make it clear to other people that you don’t want to be on the smartphone tonight?
One aspect of the problem is indeed that people have the feeling that they are better in their work if they respond faster to e-mails or messages. No, it’s not like that!
If you always make a reply quickly to an email or message at first, you never do anything important. You’re simply responding to e-mails and messages. This is the problem of today’s work – people have increasingly harder to understand what is really original for a person trying to develop a product for several months or to come out with some new idea.
However, sending an instant message or email is an immediate thing. It’s fun for the brain and the person feels that he or she got something done. But we have to get rid of such pseudo-job victories! Continuously checking your smartphone is worth limiting because it’s addictive.
If we want to be successful and innovative, we need to put our thinking ahead. We need to make the smartphones silent during work. Everyone will understand if you send this e-mail the next morning, the next day or the next week, because it’s not important.
What is important is that we use the capability that has been given to our brain. At the end of our lives, we don’t regret responding slowly to an e-mail.
What makes the human brain cool is that people are looking for something new and something exciting all the time. When we get new information on other people or just something interesting, it’s really nice to our brain.
On the one hand, this is a problem, because it creates addiction, but on the other hand I am quite sure that it has also made us different from other animals. This is an important characteristic.
But we need to implement it properly. If we are on the side of more addiction, it might be easier to say that our brain is moving closer to other animals. However, if we are able to keep what makes us a person, we will continue to develop as a person and as a human being.
Jaan Aru is Senior Research Fellow of Cognitive Psychology and Psychology of Law and Research Fellow in Computational Neuroscience at the University of Tartu.
This article was first published at ERR Novaator.