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Posted at 6:40 PM ET, 02/23/2011

Cell phones alter brain activity? Of course!

By Alexandra Petri

Cell phone use alters brain activity?

Of course it does.

They say holding a cell phone next to your head increases brain activity by 7 percent.

That's probably true. Since getting a cell phone, at least 7 percent of my brain has continually been active wondering whether anyone has sent me a text message.

It's not like waiting by the phone. Waiting by the phone implied that if the phone rang, you would pick it up and have a conversation. The only time I use my cell phone for that is with my parents, who still write full signatures after all their text messages, or if I am lost and have exhausted all other options.

Cell phones are for information hits. If information were a drug, we'd need to have cell phone exchanges.They're the prime delivery method - quick hits immediately.

Cell phones put us in touch with each other without the annoyances of actual conversation. When you are really talking to someone, you are expected to listen when he or she says anything, and if you only start laughing half an hour later, it strikes everyone as odd. And they're transforming our language, giving us that peculiar shorthand with lots of U's that shortens normal words to make room for more exclamation points!!!!!


In most American Adults, cell phones have also activated the brain area that is concerned about sexting. This brain area was underused in prior ages. Occasionally it would flare up because you had the sense that, somewhere, your child might be posing for an ill-advised daguerreotype, but you could generally arrange for the pony delivering this to fall into a peat bog and die before any damage could be done.

Without my cell phone, I am lost. With it, I am also lost, but I can text somebody. My cell phone has deactivated the part of my brain that used to tell me how to get from point A to point B without mistakenly walking several miles along Dangerous Highway C. Once Google Maps failed to function, and I convinced myself that I was drowning in the mid-Atlantic because I am no longer able to detect simple location cues.

Recently, while bowling, I found myself continually checking my phone. "It is easier to grip the ball if you aren't holding your Blackberry," my friends pointed out. But I couldn't put it down! My brain was too busy being active!

I don't know what that part of my brain is expecting. Perhaps someone will sext me!

The nearest I can come to expressing the ineffable allure of the omnipresent cell phone is that maybe the next time I reload my e-mail, George Lucas will have gotten in touch because he wants me to write the dialogue for the live-action Star Wars series.

Anything might happen.

But perhaps our phone obsession is something more. After all, the defining human characteristic is not compassion or the ability to walk upright or our vague mistrust of the Prudential lady or even the notion that we are featherless bipeds possessing a soul. It's the fear of missing out. All of us are constantly worried that everyone else is off somewhere without us having fun.

Although this same sense occasionally nagged at the Colonials, there wasn't much they could do about it besides writing a pointed letter every six months. This is why we are willing to tell faceless strangers where we are. "Hey, look, I have just checked into McDonalds on FourSquare," we say. That's why we take our cell phones everywhere, attached to our hips like babies, or barnacles, or baby barnacles. We eat with them. We drink with them. We would swim with them, but we aren't, by and large, idiots. We sleep with them.

Now they say that sleeping with cell phones is supposed to give your heirs bizarre genetic defects not seen since the fall of the Merovingians. But if you don't sleep with your cell phone, how are you ever going to wind up having heirs in the first place? You might miss the text!

By Alexandra Petri  | February 23, 2011; 6:40 PM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  cell phones, kids these days, oops, technology  
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Comments

We did the same study using a wired handset and guess what? The increased glucose and brain cell activity were attributed to the conversation.

Posted by: brasstack | February 23, 2011 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Ring. ... Ring....
Hello. WH 'Hotline' mobile.
(waiting for translator......). Mummy! Hey dude! Wut up? ...(w.f.t.).
Things kinda hot over there eh? Do we what? (w.f.t., Libyan).
Hold on just a second...... Yeah. We do have a vacant seat on Thursday's space shuttle. (w.f.t.)... Is it first class opulent? ... Yeah. Very private. It's an extra module located on the engine exhaust thruster nacelles. We use foam adhesive to attach it, so it's very quiet. .... (w.f.t.). .... Book it? OKey Dokey.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | February 23, 2011 7:59 PM | Report abuse

The use of cell phones by adults today (mainly by constantly staring at the screen and pushing buttons) reminds me of a baby clutching its "binky"--cell phones are merely pacifiers for adults.

Posted by: capsfan77 | February 23, 2011 9:59 PM | Report abuse

capsfan77, cell phones may be pacifiers for adults, but they are also an irritating invention for others. When you have to answer your phone while sitting on the "throne" in a public restroom, things have gone too far.

Posted by: mbrumble | February 24, 2011 8:04 AM | Report abuse

I must be naive. Or at best I must be behind the times. I can't, for the life of me, understand the part of the story that reads: "Cell phones put us in touch with each other without the annoyances of actual conversation. When you are really talking to someone, you are expected to listen when he or she says anything.."

Doesn't actual conversation add to the discussion, so you can better understand what the other person wants or wants you to know? You are really expected to listen? Well, isn't that kind of like...uh...you know, what you do when your read what the other person texted you? You know, pay attention to what's written so you don't think they meant something totally opposite.

Okay, a disclaimer. I have a cell phone that is set, somehow, to shut off at midnight and turn on again at 5:30 a.m. I know you can program it for speed dial but I don't know how. And I actually have memorized the three phone numbers I irregularly call. But I do know how to look up incoming or outgoing calls to find a phone number I recognize if I need to call someone else. And I make less than a call a day...and often go several days without making a call on it. Oh, and, no it's not a smart phone (whatever that means); I use it for phone calls and I have a separate computer I use if I need to do computer work because I can't read books or work very much off a phone-sized screen.

But that's just me.

Posted by: Dungarees | February 24, 2011 8:22 AM | Report abuse

To brasstack: Except that in the experiment, no audible messages were sent; ergo, no audible stimulus to activate brain activity.

By the way, I work in the information technology field and I do just fine with only a land line on the desk, and a desktop PC. No beeper, no ipod, no cell phone. If there is an "emergency", they can leave a message on my home answering machine.

What does the company get in return? How about an employee who is NOT sleep deprived when he gets to work. An employee who can FOCUS on the task at hand. An employee that provides answers and solutions during the day that do not require translations from gibberish uttered at 1:00 AM while half asleep. An employee who doesn't require tolerance or play nice training because of uttering an insulting expletive when a call interrupts him in the middle of an important meeting or during his off time.

Posted by: mhoust | February 24, 2011 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Funny essay, and I also like Dungaree's comments. While flat-out rejection of last week's technology runs the risk of making one unfashionable, unemployable, and ... let's just say it ... OLD.... I'm inclined towards Dungaree's clear-cut limited embracing of modern tech. I use a computer. I use a cell phone (for ... umm.. phone calls, mainly). But I'd take it a step further and reject the idea of using a larger-screen device (laptop, desktop computer, Kindle, or iPad for reading books. That technology destroyed my profession (traditional book publishing). Who wants to retrain someone who is so out-of-date that I still read actual books, make calls on my cell phone, send and receive email, surf the web, and buy physical CDs and DVDs for music and video. I'm just old and in-the-way using these ancient, early Bush administration era protocols.... but at least I still have a functioning brain!

Posted by: terrymulligan | February 24, 2011 8:48 AM | Report abuse

So they have altered brains and that's why cell phone users could care less about the people around them. Here I thought they were just being ( ! )'s.

Posted by: whocares666 | February 24, 2011 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Who are we without cell phones?

Safe from brain damage like Ted Kennedy.
There is a rumor you will get a tumor.

Need a job with lots of growth potential?
Have you considered becoming a brain surgeon?

Posted by: alance | February 24, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Guess my "feeling" smarter is actually 'cause I am! Threw my cellphone in the trash 5 years ago...never had one since...nor the bills!

Posted by: snowbucks | February 24, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

In response to mbrumble some friends of mine (both large males) sorted out the irritation of loud phone conversations on a train (this is in the UK) by the simple device of recording for five minutes and then re-playing loudly the conversation - the the enjoyment of others and discomfiture of the offender who did not continue the call.

Posted by: JohnSutton1 | February 24, 2011 11:53 PM | Report abuse

When someone answers a phone in a public restroom, I like to add a loud comment, like "Boy, that was a stinky one!"

Posted by: jimward21 | February 27, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

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