Smartphones Are Reshaping How Our Brains and Thumbs Work Together

December 29, 2014

9:00 pm

A study published by the Current Biology concludes that extensive use of smartphone touch screens is changing the sensory relationship between our brains and our thumbs. The study was conducted by neuroscientists from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich who believe that smartphones provide a unique opportunity to understand how everyday life can shape the human brain.

Smartphone use has increased all over the world; in the U.S. 90% of adults have a smartphone. This means more people use their fingers—and in particular their thumbs—in a completely new way multiple times a day, every day.

“What this means for us neuroscientists is that the digital history we carry in our pockets has an enormous amount of information on how we use our fingertips (and more),” explains one of the study’s authors, Arko Ghosh.

Linking this “digital history” to brain activity was a case of using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the cortical brain activity in 37 right-handed people, of whom 26 were touchscreen Smartphone users and 11 users of old cellphones. 62 electrodes placed on the test subjects’ heads recorded this potential based on movements of the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger.

The results showed that in smartphone users, electrical brain activity was enhanced when each of the three fingers were being touched. The level of activity in the cortex was also found to be directly proportional to the intensity of phone use, which was qualified by the battery logs. The very tip of the thumb was even found to be sensitive to day-to-day fluctuations in phone use. The shorter the period of time that had elapsed after the last episode of intense touchscreen use, the more activity was observed in the brain.

What these findings mean is that the repetitive movements made by our thumbs is reshaping the sensory processing from our hands, and this can be adjusted on demand when we are using our phones. The researchers believe this is evidence that “the contemporary brain is continuously shaped by the use of personal digital technology.”

While the study does not take into account the mechanical abilities of our thumbs, it does suggest that touchscreen use is causing our brains to reorganize and to host an enhanced sensory representation of our thumbs.

 

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Camila has been heavily active in South Florida’s tech startup community, where she is a co-host of a local radio show called pFunkcast. Camila previously worked at Greenpeace International and the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in various communication roles. A proud Brazilian who spent most of he life in Peru, she is passionate about traveling and documentaries.

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