Neuroimaging study suggests smartphone addiction may reduce the capacity for creativity

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Researchers in China investigated the consequences of smartphone addiction on creativity. Using brain imaging technology, they measured cortical responses to creative tasks. The results indicate that smartphone addiction negatively influences the brain’s creative capacity. Specifically, the brain’s prefrontal cortex and temporal areas were not as active when asked to think creatively. This was in contrast to participants who did not have a smartphone addiction.

The research has been published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The global pandemic and resulting isolation increased the number of people with smartphone addictions. Previous research found that those with smartphone addictions were less creative than those without. Xinyi Li and colleagues were hoping to discover what areas of the brain were responsible for this decrease in a creative capacity.

Participants were between 18 and 25 years old and were students at Shaanxi Normal University. The 48 participants were identified using the Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS). Twenty-four of the participants scored high on the SAS and became the experimental group. The remaining 24 earned low scores on the SAS and made up the control condition. Participants were free of medication that may affect the nervous system and had no other behavioral addictions.

The research team intended to measure creativity using the Alternative Uses Task. This test gives individuals an everyday object and 30 seconds to name as many alternate uses of the object as possible. Phase one of the test presented a series of objects and their top two uses. Participants were to memorize these lists and be able to repeat them back.

The second phase used neuroimaging to reveal what the brain was doing while participants were responding to the Alternative Uses Task. For one-half of all participants, some of the objects that were part of the Alternative Uses Task were also part of phase one. Therefore, they had already been told and asked to remember the most common uses for the object.

Those participants who had thought creatively about objects they had previously seen in the experiment were in what the research team called the “constrained condition.” Those who were asked to think about all new objects were in the “unconstrained condition.”  Both the experimental and control groups had participants who were constrained and unconstrained. The purpose of these two conditions was to increase the difficulty of the Alternative Uses Task; participants who had prior exposure to the item’s purpose would find it more challenging to determine alternative uses.

Analyzing the data collected from the Alternative Uses Task, researchers found that those with smartphone addiction scored lower in fluency, flexibility, and originality. This was true for the constrained and unconstrained conditions. The imaging revealed that the brain’s prefrontal cortex and temporal areas were not as active in those with smartphone addiction.

The researchers concluded, “by manipulating the semantic constraints, we found that the smartphone addiction individuals exhibited reduced cortical activations and functional connectivities in the prefrontal cortex and temporal cortex, making it difficult to overcome semantic constraints and establish original associations during creative idea generation.”

The research team conceded there were some limitations to their study. They did not differentiate between different kinds of smartphone addiction. Individuals could be addicted the gaming on their phones only or on social media. These differences could have consequences for creativity and brain function. Additionally, the study only explored one component of creativity. Insight problem-solving, for example, was not assessed.

Despite these limitations, the researchers feel their study is an important addition to our knowledge of how smartphone addiction may impact cognition.

The study, “Reduced brain activity and functional connectivity during creative idea generation in individuals with smartphone addiction“, was authored by Xinyi Li, Yadan Li, Xuewei Wang, and Weiping Hu.

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