If you're looking for an excuse to take a small digital sabbatical, science is here to offer you a pretty good one: Your devices may be changing the way you think, according to a new study.
Researchers from Dartmouth College found that individuals who use devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones for reading purposes may focus more on concrete details rather than the bigger picture. The findings suggest excessive tech use may be influencing abstract thinking.
The study authors included more than 300 participants from ages 20 to 24, with an aim to measure how they processed and retained information they read based on the medium they used. To make it as fair as possible, the researchers published reading material in the same font size and format for both digital and print platforms.
The participants filled out a Behavior Identification Form, which measures a person's method of thinking when it comes to describing basic, everyday behaviors, study author Geoff Kaufman told The Huffington Post. Subjects were either "concrete thinkers," describing actions in detail using facts, or "abstract thinkers" who attached meaning to actions instead of attaching concrete characteristics.
In one of four tests, the researchers asked the participants to read a short story on either a physical printout or on a laptop, then gave them a pop quiz with both concrete and abstract questions. The abstract questions focused on the story's content, like the characters' motives for their actions, while the concrete questions were more detail-oriented, like the color of the characters' clothes.
Print readers got 66 percent of the abstract questions correct on average, while the digital readers only answered 48 percent of them accurately. For concrete questions, digital readers got 73 percent correct while print readers got 58 percent correct. Kaufman said this pattern of print readers scoring higher on abstract questions seemed to remain consistent throughout the experiment, which included three additional tests.
The findings are an eye-opening insight into how things like laptops, phones and tablets can affect our brain function. Digital devices may be transforming our intellect and how we process information, warned the researchers, adding that reduced abstract thinking, in particular, could have lasting psychological implications.
"Abstract thinking isn’t just about big picture ideas: We need it to understand why we are doing things," study author Mary Flanagan told HuffPost. "Thinking longer term about consequences is also tied to this type of thinking. It is the kind of thinking that helps us eat better or exercise, for example, because we want to live long, healthy lives."
Abstract thinking is also tied to empathy and creativity, Kaufman said. But that doesn't necessarily mean concrete thinking, the type encouraged by devices, is inferior: Both ways of encoding information are needed for optimal cognitive performance.
If anything, the findings are another important highlight on the need for mindful tech use. Digital devices don't just affect modes of thinking: Previous research also suggests that too much tech can impair memory, mess with sleep and may even contribute to weight gain.
Ready to pull the plug for a little while? Yeah, we are, too.