Too much email rots your brain

Apr 22 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

It's official. Spending too much time text messaging and checking your emails really will rot your brain.

According to a study of 1,000 adults carried out by psychologists at the King's College London, heavy texting and emailing causes a reduction in mental capability equivalent to the loss of 10 IQ points

Dr Glen Wilson, who carried out the research, said that obsessive use of phones and e-mail devices a phenomenon he terms "infomania" - impairs mental capability even more than smoking cannabis.

The problem with 'always on' technology, he suggests, is that it leads to constant distractions and a reduction in concentration and mental discipline.

"We have found that infomania, if unchecked, will damage a worker's performance by reducing their mental sharpness," he said.

"It is obvious that full concentration is impossible when we have one eye on e-mails or text messages."

"But we found that mental performance, the capability of the brain, was also reduced. Workers cannot think as well when they are worrying about e-mail or voicemails. It effectively reduces their IQ.

"The impairment only lasts for as long as the distraction. But you have to ask whether our current obsession with constant communication is causing long-term damage to concentration and mental ability."

Dr Wilson said that the human brain finds it difficult to cope with juggling lots of tasks at once and that constantly breaking off from tasks to check emails slowed the brain down.

"It is similar to the effect on the mind of losing a night's sleep, for instance, and more than twice the effect of the four-point drop in IQ caused by smoking cannabis," he added.

The research, sponsored by Hewlett Packard, also revealed that the ubiquity of online communication has led to some fundamental behavioural changes.

One in five of those questioned said that they would interrupt a meeting to answer a call or email, while half claimed that they always responded to emails immediately.

Nine out of 10 said that they felt that answering messages during meetings was rude. Nevertheless, a third said that this had become "acceptable and seen as a sign of diligence and efficiency".

More than six out of 10 also admitted that they were addicted to checking their e-mail and text messages and would do so even when at home or on holiday.

The absolute reliance that some people have on their email was also illustrated in research carried out in 2003 which found that more than a third of CIO's and IT Mangers in the USA believed that losing email for a week would be more traumatic than a divorce or having a car accident.

Dr Wilson, meanwhile, suggests that employers should encourage better practice and offer guidelines on the 'healthy' use of communication tools.

But his top tip is also the most simple.

"The most effective way to deal with the problem is to switch these things off. We have to learn to control technology rather than letting it control us."