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tech harm reduction

Our Brains Need Phones That Only Let You Do One Thing at a Time

We can't multitask, but our devices demand that we do.

Shayla Love

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this month, Craig Federighi, the senior vice president of Software Engineering, said that our cell phone use “has become such a habit that we might not recognize how distracted we’ve become.”

His admission was coupled with the announcement of new features Apple is rolling out to counter this, like a bedtime “Do Not Disturb” function so you don’t get notifications while sleeping, or being able to set a time limit for apps like Instagram or Facebook (though you can ignore this limit if you want to).

As ironic as it is to need programming on your phone to stop yourself from using your phone, it’s extremely relatable. I’ve looked at mine more than 30 times while writing this article. I’ve checked my email more than ten times, chatted on Slack to my colleagues, and browsed Twitter. None of that is out of the ordinary. When my phone lights up, I look at it. When I get a new email, I leave my word document to read it and respond.

This is just how we use our devices, right? Even way back in 2015, 46 percent of Americans said they couldn’t live without their smartphones. There’s a term for the fear of not being able to check your phone constantly: nomophobia, short for No Mobile Phone Phobia. You can check your own levels of nomophobia by taking a quiz developed by researchers; when I took it, I scored in the highest category: severe nomophobia.

As a journalist who needs to respond to emails at odd hours, I wasn't totally surprised. But I was a little worried. There’s accumulating evidence that this relationship we have with our phones isn’t good for our health. There have been studies showing that over-exposure to the light coming from our devices could be messing with our circadian rhythms. Even more troubling is evidence that it could be affecting our minds: A study from 2015 showed that when people were unable to answer a ringing iPhone while doing a word-search puzzle, they felt anxious and unpleasant, and their ability to do the puzzle was impaired. In 2011, a study found that the way our memory works may be changing, since we have the ability to Google any piece of information we might need (why remember anything when you can look it up?).

And a small study from Korea University, presented at the Radiological Society of North America but not yet peer-reviewed, looked at the brains of 19 teenage boys who had been diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction. They found that the boys with the diagnosis had higher levels of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that slows down brain signals, compared to controls. This might imply that they have issues paying attention and staying focused, though larger studies are needed.

Is the Do Not Disturb feature enough? How can we use our phones—or even design our phones—so that they’re good for our brains?

Before simply throwing my iPhone in the trash, I recognize that there a few options out there to counter the negative effects of phones. There's Night Shift, which turns the LED blue light to a more orange-y hue when the sun is down, and the aforementioned features to track your time spent on overused apps.

But our overall behavior is worth examining too: What's the generalization we can make about how we use our phones? Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at the Picower Institute at MIT, says that smartphones force us to be multitaskers. Our phones are constantly lighting up, telling us we got an email, our tweet has been liked, our friend is messaging us about dinner later—and these notifications interrupt whatever we’re doing (which is usually work of some kind).

Miller studies multitasking and our ability to do it, or rather, our lack of ability. He tells me that even though people might think they can multitask, it’s actually not something our brains are capable of doing.

We can store a lifetime of information in our brains, but it lives in the background, in our long-term memory, waiting for us to draw on it. We don’t actively or consciously think about all of that knowledge all the time. When we do consciously think, Miller says that we have a limited capacity for how much we can think about. “Humans can really only think about one thing at a time,” he says.

But wait, you might be saying, I multitask all the time. And I’m really good at it, I swear. (This was my response.) “People are wrong about that,” Miller tells me. “If there's one thing the brain is very good at, it's deluding itself.”

When Miller brings people in the laboratory to test their multitasking skills, he finds that they’re not multitasking: They’re switching back and forth rapidly between two tasks. We don’t notice the switching, because it would be too jarring experientially. Our brain smoothes it out, making it seem like one coherent experience. The result is that you think you’re doing two things or more at once, when you’re just switching.

This matters because each time our brain switches between each task, it slows down a little bit. “It has to backtrack,” Miller says. “It makes mistakes. This greatly impacts your productivity, and for a couple of reasons. Instead of spending all this quality time actually thinking, processing information in your brain, you're wasting time switching between the tasks and reconfiguring your brain.” Miller thinks this could also impact creativity, because your brain doesn’t have time to meander into your memories, make new associations, and come up with new ideas and concepts.

According to Miller, our phones are demanding our brains to multitask at levels we’re just not capable of, and that affects our productivity levels and the overall quality of our thoughts. So if my brain can’t multitask, why am I drawn to multitasking at all? Why does nomophobia exist and why do I crave seeing what the new notification is that’s popped up?

Miller says that this can also be explained by our brain’s functioning: Our brains evolved hundred of thousands of years ago in a very different environment, where there wasn’t a lot of new information to process each day. If something new entered the scene, it might have been a predator, or a food source, so we’re highly attuned to seek out and pay attention to anything new. This trait, along with our single-mindedness, is a pretty bad recipe for now interacting with cell phones every day. This is why we seemingly can't help it when a new notification pops up, or why even if you put your phone away, you want to look at it.

“We're constantly looking, checking all the sources around us for new information, even though most of it's irrelevant, not helpful,” Miller says. “It's just that we can't turn off our brain's craving for new information, because our brain evolved in a way to find new information something to crave for.”

Miller and I talked about how a cell phone might be designed to counter this craving, so as to avoid nomophobia and help your brain perform at its best. Miller says that at a very basic level, the ideal phone for would provide less information: no emails, no texts, no internet.

While it’s not likely that the next iPhone will be stripped of all of those components, there are some phones that are intentionally being dumbed down. The Galaxy J2 Pro from Samsung is a "dumb" phone that can't connect to the internet or run apps. I tried a minimally designed phone called the Light Phone, which only makes phone calls. The desire to carry the thing around—which looks like a thick blank credit card—was minimal. I left it at home and went without. It was providing no new interesting information for me, and so my craving for it dissipated. (At the same time, I had to manage a lingering anxiety that I was missing important emails or that my boss was trying to reach me.)

Still, Miller says this would be a great concept to introduce to our smartphones, if we could re-learn that you don't have to always be available if you're focusing on something else. “You should [be able to] have your phone turn into a dumb phone for an extended period of time while you're working," he says. This is pretty similar to the Do Not Disturb function, but in an ideal future world it would even avoid the possibility that you'll check it anyway. Miller imagines a feature that requires extra effort to get back in, like solving a math problem to exit Do Not Disturb. Or, if your phone could be linked to your wearable fitness device, preventing you from accessing it until detects that you’ve gone on a ten-minute walk. “You don't want to make it too easy to get back in there," he says.

Another feature might only allow you to open one app at a time, and for a minimum or maximum amount of time. Then, if you’re on your email, you can’t be interrupted by another app—you have to stay and focus on your email and direct all your attention to it.

Gloria Mark doesn’t think technology is all bad. She originally trained as a psychologist, but moved into the tech field and now works at the department of informatics at the University of California Irvine. Mark creates what she calls living laboratories, where people using technology get monitored while in the real world, rather than the lab. She tracks their computer activity and puts various types of sensors on them to see how their stress levels coincide with what they’re doing online.

Yes, we have our phones all of the time, she says, and that’s a distraction. A recent study she did affirms a lot of what Miller told me: We’re multitasking too much. She found that the average amount of time a person will look at a screen is only about 40 seconds before switching to check another app or window.

Mark agrees with Miller that in a perfect world, she would want her phone to know when she is focusing on something, and have it turn off other notifications until she’s done. She also thinks that your phone should be dead to the world until you’re done—no cheating or overriding just a few minutes later. “Then I could learn pretty quickly that if I try to access something, it's not going to cooperate, so I would relearn my habitual behavior,” she says.

But she’s not sure that needing to solve a math problem would be the best way to log back in. From her work, she says that she knows people are too stressed, and math might add to that. Perhaps a perfect phone wouldn’t just block us from itself or prevent us from multitasking, but help alleviate some of the stress it—and the busy world—causes.

“This might be far in the future, but if the phone, through its camera, could look at colorations in my face and determine when I’m stressed, it could tell me it’s time to take a break,” she says. “It might say, "Gloria, time to take a break. You're a bit over the top now, so let's take a walk outside.” Some wearables, like Fitbit Ionic and the Apple Watch Series 3, are attempting features like this already and using their capability to detect your heart rate to guide you through breathing exercises. A headset wearable called Muse even claims to help you keep your mind clear by using EEG sensors along your scalp to read your real-time brain activity. When you're calm, you hear peaceful weather sounds and when your mind wanders, the weather noise will intensify and "gently guide you back to a calm state."

But Mark thinks that for all phones do to distract us, some of that ok: They also provide us a way of connecting with other people. “If you're really stressed and your phone detects that, maybe it could also prompt you to call someone in your network for you to chat with,” she says.

The few times I used my Light Phone, I missed texting with some of my closest friends who, because of busy schedules, I don’t get to see as much as I’d like to. My sister (who is a teenager) and I communicate entirely through text, in a highly enjoyable ongoing dialogue about the gossip at her school and the newest episode of Riverdale.

Hopefully we'll figure out ways to maintain the positives of our phone use—the personal connections, the ability to plan to see people IRL—while balancing out the bad. Until the math-problem locked, stress-relief iPhone comes out, I'm going to try to just use one app at a time to give my brain a chance to function the best it can. We can try to change technology to fit how our brains work, because it's not going to happen the other way around.

"Our limited capacity we have seems to be something very fundamental to the way the brain works," Miller says. "I often hear from Generation X kids: 'We're better at multitasking, because we grew up with all this stuff and we're more used to it.' Not true. Another self-delusion. It varies from person to person a little bit, but everybody has a limitation in their capacity to multitask."

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