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Are Smartphones Making Our Thumbs Smarter?

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Originally posted on February 5, 2015.

Even though the smartphone has only been around for the past seven or eight years, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what life was like before we had so much information at our fingertips. You could argue with a friend about what year “Back to the Future, Part 2” came out, or in what year the “future” was set. (It was released in 1989. The future, filled with flying cars and floating skateboards, was set in 2015.)

Back then, you couldn’t resolve discussions by swiping a screen and touching a button. Siri wasn’t even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye. If you got lost, you had to consult a map or stop and ask for directions, and if you got bored while waiting in line, you couldn’t pass the time by playing Candy Crush or perusing Instagram.

Luddites argue that life was better before the smart phone, whereas others tout the benefits of instant communication and information. But one thing is certain: The smartphone has changed our lives. And our thumbs.

Yes, when we spend time on smartphones using a touchscreen, it changes the way our thumbs and brains work together, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Our obsession with smartphones presented the perfect opportunity to explore the everyday plasticity of our brains. With smartphones, we are using our fingertips—especially our thumbs—in a new way, and we do it a lot. And because our phones keep track of how we use them, they carry a wealth of information that can be studied.

In the study, the research team used electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain response to the touch of the thumb, index finger, and middle fingerprints of touchscreen phone users compared to people who still use flip phones or other old-school devices. They found that the electrical activity in the brains of smartphone users was enhanced when all three fingertips were touched. The amount of activity in the brain’s cortex associated with the thumb and index fingertips was directly proportional to the amount of phone use.

Repetitive movements over the touchscreen surface might reshape sensory processing from the hand. Cortical sensory processing in our brains is constantly shaped by personal digital technology. So, the next time you use your thumbs to tweet, answer email, or jot yourself a note, remember that you’re training your brain. Keep in mind, too, that excessive phone usage is linked with motor dysfunction and pain. Remember the so-called “BlackBerry thumb”?

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”