Using a touchscreen smartphone can trigger changes in the human brain similar to playing the violin.
According to researchers from Swiss universities of Zurich and Freibourg, the excessive use of thumbs and fingers to swipe and sweep and type to control modern touchscreen smartphones activates certain areas of the brain making them develop more than in people using old button-based keyboards.
A similar effect was previously observed in violinists.
The scientists used electroencephalography to measure activity in the cortex of the brain of 37 right-handed people, of whom 26 were touchscreen smartphone users and 11 users of old mobile phones.
With 62 electrodes placed on the test subjects’ heads, the scientists tried to find a link between the use of a smartphone and activity of a brain centre responsible for finger movements.
The researchers were surprised to find substantial differences in the brain activity between the two groups.
“At first glance, this discovery seems comparable to what happens in violinists,” said Arko Ghosh from the Institute of Neuroinformatics of the University of Zurich who initiated the experiment.
However, there were differences. Whereas in the case of violinists the level of the cortical activity depended on the age when they started practicing, in the case of smartphone users the time involved didn’t play a role. Instead, the researchers found a connection between the activation of the brain and the most recent use of the device. In the case of violinists, no such correlation had been found.
The researchers also found that the frequency of smartphone usage increases the observed signal in the brain.
“The digital technology we use on a daily basis shapes the sensory processing in our brains – and on a scale that surprised us,” said Ghosh.
“Smartphones offer us an opportunity to understand how normal life shapes the brains of ordinary people.”
Researchers have known for some time that every part of the body is controlled by a particular processing area in the brain. These areas are flexible and can change over time dependant on the person’s activities.