Rather than improving our mental abilities, smartphones are increasingly blamed for ruining our brains. We replace valuable face-to-face social interactions with a constant virtual connection and complain that it’s harder to concentrate.

Dr. Peter Reiner, a professor at the National Core for Neuroethics at UBC, argues that our devices should be redesigned to foster healthier connections between humans and technology so we can use our brains for more challenging activities.

Can smartphones and other technologies improve brain function and make us smarter?

The short answer is yes, but not in the way that people normally think. The fact of the matter is that existing tools to enhance cognitive function don’t work very well. This is probably because our brains are already working very well and efforts to improve them are starting to bump up against the hard limits of our inherent biology.

We are suggesting that it may be time to stop trying to boost the brain from within and take advantage of the technology at our fingertips – the algorithms in our computers and smartphones. In a very palpable sense, the distinction between our brains and our devices is beginning to dissolve so much so that I’ve begun to call these tools “technologies of the extended mind.” We can best improve our cognitive abilities by capitalizing on the blending of brain and technology.

What is the potential for new technologies to improve the brain’s abilities?

The potential is huge but we need to find a way to use these technologies more wisely.

Consider this example. You are at dinner and someone mentions a movie that came out a few years ago that had wonderfully evocative music. When the question arises as to who wrote the music, how likely is it that in the next moment someone will reach for their smartphone and say, “I’ll just Google it.” Given how unremarkable such an event is today (and it is remarkable that it is unremarkable), it shows how seamlessly technology has become integrated in our lives.

The very same technologies that enhance our cognitive abilities degrade them at every turn. We have allowed our reliance upon our technologies of the extended mind to blind us to the fact that they are also damaging our cognitive health – most notably by distracting us every time they demand our attention.

If we are serious about using technology to improve our cognitive function, we need to change the design of our technologies. Today, most features of our computers and smartphones – even the ones that are seemingly offered for free – are geared towards corporate profit margins. What we need is nothing short of a revolution in IT design in which the profit objective is tied to the cognitive health of the user.

What would smartphones that improve our cognitive abilities look like?

One approach that merits further consideration is the idea of calm technology meaning devices that inform without distracting. For example, your phone might automatically go silent when it knows that you are in a meeting or sleeping unless the message is urgent.

In order to find solutions to improve our relationship with technology, we are going to need a broad group of people working on the problem. We’ll need researchers who can examine the benefits and disadvantages of technology, policymakers and behaviour scientists who can come up with creative ways to encourage best practices, and technology designers who can improve the user experience by creating devices that boost our cognitive abilities.

Reiner examines these issues in a recently published article in Nature Outlook: Cognitive Health.