Are Smartphones Keeping Us from Appreciating Art?

Isaac Kaplan
Nov 30, 2017 10:10PM

Photo by Phil Roeder, via Flickr.

According to recent estimates, by 2018, there will be 2.59 billion smartphone users on planet earth. That’s around a third of the world’s current population. Yet despite their ubiquity, what smartphones do to our brains over the long term remains murky.

There is, however, a rich discussion as to how the technology in our pockets is impacting our day-to-day lives. For instance: Should we bring our phones to a museum, especially if we’re looking to have a rewarding, meditative experience with a work of art?

There is very little direct research on this subject. A journal article published in April compiled and evaluated previous research on the connection between smartphones and cognition. The authors—Henry H. Wilmer, Lauren E. Sherman, and Dr. Jason M. Chein of Temple University—cited one 2013 study that took place in a museum which examined the impact of using point-and-shoot cameras on a museum tour.

Basically all smartphones today have cameras, so point-and-shoot cameras serve as a valid proxy for taking photos of art with a smartphone. For the aforementioned 2013 study, authored by Fairfield University psychology professor Dr. Linda A. Henkel, researchers took undergraduate students on a tour of the school’s Bellarmine Museum of Art (now called the Fairfield University Art Museum).

The students were asked to observe certain objects, photographing some and not photographing others. The next day the students were given a series of tests, including being presented with images of works from the tour, as well as images of works they had not seen. Researchers found that students had less memory of the objects they had photographed on the tour, including details like name and location in the museum, suggesting that taking photographs diminishes recall.

But there was a little twist: The study found that photography’s effect on memory can be mitigated if the photographer zooms in on specific details. When students engaged an artwork and took a photo of just a smaller piece of the object, rather than its entirety, they were able to remember the entire object better— suggesting, as Wilmer, Sherman, and Chien write in regards to Dr. Henkel’s study, that “the improvement was due to a more rich interaction with the object.”

There’s an obvious difference between point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones, though: The latter let us text our friends, surf the internet, and engage in endless distractions. A Wall Street Journal article published in October rounded up research that examined the connection between smartphones and cognition. None of the studies seemed to address the effect on looking at art specifically, but they did focus on skills crucial to processing art deeply: thinking and focus. And in this case, the findings aren’t promising. “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens,” wrote author Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal.

Research has found that even the presence of a phone in your pocket can distract you. A 2017 study discussed in the Wall Street Journal article looked at this directly. The research found that how students scored on two cognitive tests was correlated to how close their cellphone was to them. The students whose phone was in an entirely separate room did best; those who kept their phone in their pocket or bag fell in the middle of the pack; and those taking the test with a phone on their desk did the worst. In none of the tests did the students actually use the phone.

“As the phone’s proximity increased, brainpower decreased,” as Carr simply summarized the findings. (Despite that, based on a post-test questionnaire, the majority of participants didn’t acknowledge that their phones had impacted their performance at all.)

A 2014 study highlighted by Wilmer, Sherman, and Chein also provided further evidence to support that passive presence of a smartphone can negatively impact cognition, “especially for tasks with greater attentional and cognitive demands.” Whether viewing art falls into this category is debatable. Still, the results indicate that it might be a good idea to leave your cellphone at home (or at coat check) if you truly want to fully engage with masterpieces.

In their article, Wilmer, Sherman, and Chein point to two different ways research has found cell phones can distract. One is external—you get a text, your phone rings, it buzzes, or you’re reminded of your phone by other cues from the world around you, like someone else using their phone. Even if you don’t pick up or check your messages, research has found that a phone’s alerts pull your attention away and decreases performance on attention-based tasks.

The other, less intuitive form of phone distraction is more passive and internal. The mere idea that you could take out your phone to go on the internet or other apps can distract you, especially if you’re doing something without immediate gratification.

In looking over the body of extant research on smartphones and cognition, Wilmer, Sherman, and Chein are hesitant to draw the same doom-and-gloom conclusions often found in articles proclaiming how smartphones are ruining our minds. It isn’t that research has conclusively disproved such a negative outcome of long-term cell phone usage; rather, there’s largely a lack of data, and some studies have reached conflicting findings.

A prime example the authors reference is the supposed connection between increased smartphone use and decreased creativity. A 2015 challenge by “Note to Self” podcast presenter Manoush Zomorodi on WNYC prompted listeners to reduce their cell phone usage to increase boredom and, in turn, increase their creativity. Maybe it worked for some. But there’s no conclusive evidence to support the challenge’s underlying connection between depriving brains of downtime and a lack of creativity, the authors write.

But even if there isn’t conclusive research, why not ditch the cellphone the next time you go to the MoMA, just to see if it helps you process the work you see? Or, if you do bring a camera, snap pictures of small parts of that van Gogh you want to remember later and see if it makes a difference? It’s worth a shot.

Isaac Kaplan