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Is Your Smartphone Affecting Your Memory?

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Avid readers tend to have a strong preference for books over electronic devices. There’s something about holding a book and turning the pages that can’t be replicated by scrolling down a screen. Now, the latest research shows there’s another, memory-building reason to pick up a book instead of your smartphone. Smartphones have become an indispensable part of our lives and we wouldn’t want to be without them. But if overused they can lead to neck and posture problems, headaches, eyestrain, sleep issues, and they may harm relationships. Dr. Motoyasu Honma, from the Showa University School of Medicine in Tokyo, wanted to explore another problem linked to smartphones. The research suggests that our ability to remember and understand what we read is inferior when using a smartphone, as compared to reading books, newspapers, and magazines. He wanted to know why.

Reading and Breathing are Linked 

Previous studies show the use of smartphones and other electronic devices leads to lower cognitive performance and poorer reading comprehension, but no clear explanation for this could be found. Researchers speculate it might be down to poorer concentration or that the brain receives, organizes, and processes information in a different, less efficient way, when viewed on a screen. To get more clarity, Dr. Honma and his research team focused on two key factors linked to cognitive function and performance when reading. The first is vision, which has a dominant influence over other senses; the other is breathing. Many studies link respiration with different cognitive functions. Dr. Honma theorized that reading on a screen would change the breathing pattern. This in turn would alter brain function and hinder reading comprehension. It’s a plausible theory. Would it stand up to scrutiny?

Paper Reading Proves Superior 

For his study, 34 university students read different passages from a novel on a smartphone and in print. This was then repeated using passages from another novel by the same author. While the students read the material, they wore headbands to measure brain activity and masks to record breathing patterns. When completed they were asked ten questions relating to what they read. The result was consistent with prior studies showing comprehension for both novels was superior when in paper form.

Smartphones Overtax the Brain 

There was also another difference that the researchers, writing in the journal Scientific Reports, described as “unexpected.” When reading paper versions, the students sighed more. A sigh is defined as a breath that’s twice the depth of an average breath. Although brain activity was elevated for both mediums, it was higher for smartphone users, and this was associated with decreased sighing and poorer reading comprehension. Previous research shows sighing increases when faced with cognitive load - challenging tasks that place extra demands on our working memory. This led Dr. Honma to suggest smartphone users have a higher cognitive load, and this brain overactivity inhibits sighing and leads to poorer comprehension. He thinks the higher cognitive load most likely comes from exposure to blue light from the screen. Is there anything smartphone users can do about this? He and his colleagues provide the following advice. “If the negative effects of smartphones are true, it may be beneficial to take deep breaths while reading, since sighs, whether voluntary or involuntary, regulate disordered breathing.”
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