In a chaotic and ever changing world, many people retreat to their own thoughts for comfort and security. Memories provide shelter from hardships and even offer opportunities for reflection and self-growth. People utilize storytelling, whether through literature, film, live performance, music or art, as a medium to express and recreate their memories for others.
It makes sense, then, that people similarly use phone cameras to capture and preserve a moment. But viewing the world through a looking glass never ends well — poor Alice even fell down a rabbit hole. Psychologists, however, are not concerned with society stumbling into Wonderland, but rather with how a “mobile mindset” diminishes empathetic abilities and alters the very way people remember their own lives.
Researchers from Clicktale and the University of Pennsylvania coined the term mobile mindset to describe the psychological state “characterized by relaxation and comfort brought about by engagement with a smartphone.” But don’t get too excited — this blissful state of tranquility is a dangerous facade.
Mobile users spend more of their time, compared to desktop users, seeking instant gratification through entertainment and social media sites rather than connecting with the larger world through news and academic resources. This creates a “perceived safe-zone” from troubles, but also encourages an isolated, narcissistic mindset.
“A visible phone in a social setting can measurably decrease the depth of the interaction,” writes Dr. Anna Akbari in Psychology Today, “creating more superficial social exchanges.” Note how the influence of mobile devices on human cognition is so strong that their mere presence, not even active use, negatively affects inter-person dynamics.
When people continually remove themselves from social situations via mobile device distractions, they inhibit the development of social skills and empathic responses. Basically, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand and relate to the billions of other people on Earth.
A recent episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” even comments on mobile mindset disconnectedness. When the gang heads to the Philadelphia Zoo, they decide a group text message will keep them connected. Shenanigans instantly ensue as the main characters become so obsessed with formulating the perfect quip, interpreting emoji meanings and deciphering text tone that they hardly look up from their phones.
They become so angry and annoyed with one another that the zoo adventure seems spectacularly ruined. Luckily, though, the meerkat exhibit saves the day. Popping their heads up through the observation domes, the friends truly see each other for the first time all day and realize this moment offers more solidarity and interconnectedness than texting.
Just imagine watching a movie with a friend and, after a particularly hilarious or heartbreaking scene, you glance over to share the moment with them, only to find their face illuminated by the glow of a cell phone. Or waking up to find your significant other is not enjoying the morning light washing through the window or kissing your head in good morning — they are scrolling absentmindedly through emails. Feeling abandoned and alone, you in turn reach for your phone as comfort. And thus, the cycle continues.
Although research regarding mobile devices’ effect on memory is limited, preliminary studies show that the presence of a phone diminishes cognitive resources along with social capacity. And with 77% of American smartphone users relying on their devices for memory support, the suggestion that phones may actually have an adverse effect on cognition is concerning.
When a few hundred participants took a self-guided tour of the Stanford Memorial Church, those who took photographs on a camera-equipped iPod scored significantly lower on a quiz, distributed a week later, than their non-camera peers.
“Just taking photos in general was enough to decrease scores on a memory test,” says Emma Templeton, a Dartmouth psychological researcher who co-authored the study. “It could just be that we’re using these devices, distracting ourselves from the experience, and because of that distraction, we don’t remember the thing we’re supposed to be paying attention to.”
Other research suggests that although mobile devices can lead to memory lapse, it can also focus one’s attention if used properly. For example, one study finds museum visitors who photograph exhibits are less likely to remember both details of the exhibit, as well as information verbally given by a guide . But when instructed to zoom in on a specific part of an artifact, the visitors’ memory retention improves significantly.
Not concerned with how a mobile mindset affects your memory? Well, what if it inhibits more than recollection of external events and objects? What if viewing the world through a phone lens alters the way people connect to their own memories? Long-term memories are created when neurological connections link sensations of a particular moment together.
If one’s attention is diverted, strong connections cannot be made, which prevents the proper storing of long-term memories. When it comes to snapping cell phone photos, visual memories are stored but the associated sensations are lost. The smell, the feel, the sound of a moment are often forfeited for that perfect Instagram post.
Just as a mobile mindset distances us from other people, it also detaches one’s emotional responses from one’s experiences. Taking photos for social media, coupled with weak sensation connections, leaves people more likely to recall their own memories from a third person perspective — as if they were viewing the photo rather than the one who experienced it firsthand.
“What we’re looking at now is more intensity of emotions,” Alixandra Barasch, a cognitive scientist at NYU, told VOX. “When people are in more of a third-person perspective, they’ll have less intense emotions when they relive the experience, whereas if I stay in the first-person perspective, I feel the genuine emotions that I felt during the exchange.”
Researchers are unsure of the long-term psychological repercussions cause by such a radical change in self-perception, but it’s not improbable that mobile mindsets are, in fact, creating a modern equivalent to Alice’s disorientation in Wonderland.