Jaan Aru

Jaan Aru is a senior research fellow of cognitive psychology and psychology of law and a research fellow in computational neuroscience at the University of Tartu.

Smart devices don’t make you better in your work

The Estonian neuroscientist, Jaan Aru, explains why smartphone addiction can have negative consequences.

No one regrets in the last hour of their life that “I didn’t respond faster to an e-mail”. But for some reason, people think that constantly checking e-mails on a smart device and answering them right away is something important.

Why does the brain love to get addicted? The brain can be addicted to many different things. The reason is that it is evolutionary for the brain to learn important, correct and new things.

These important and correct things in our evolutionary history are, for example, where to get some good crops, where to find a good, fresh place with good berries, and so on. If there is something very good about something, certain chemicals will be triggered in the brain, which will lead to the fact that this thing will be learned right away, that the place or the way you obtained the food will be remembered.

It is very important that if there is something very good, then to learn quickly and right away about it. The problem is that we bring this brain into a modern society, where something very good and enjoyable for the brain can be obtained by injection or… by moving your thumb.

This is the reason why our brain can be very addicted nowadays. Our society has well-regulated access to drugs. The availability of tobacco and alcohol is regulated; minors are completely prohibited.

But let’s take smart devices. They certainly are addictive to the brain. It can be argued that they are not as dangerous as alcohol or drugs. But in the case of a smart device, there is a problem that it is not regulated at all.

We even promote the fact that children can already use smart devices. No one would think of giving children alcohol, something addictive.

Is a smart device equal to alcohol?

For me, as a brain scientist, the smart device is even worse. Potentially, we will ruin the brains of the next generation. If you’ve used it, then that moving your thumb brings something good for your brain, and of course you won’t be bothered to listen to a teacher who’s going to be talking about an hour or more. You just can’t!

Your brain simply doesn’t understand why you need to do this. You get that nice input much more easily from the phone.

And how does the sense of addiction work at that moment?

If you are a smoker, for example, and you go out after eating, you will have the urge to smoke immediately because it is a habit and the brain is accustomed to behave like that.

But we can’t smoke in all places (In Estonia, it’s forbidden to smoke in bars, pubs etc.). With a smart device, however, we have no borders, we have this smart device in our pocket all the time. If the brain is addicted, it will manifest that no matter whether you are doing your job, in a school class, or driving a car, then you will have the idea that I will look at my smartphone.

This urge cannot be suppressed even if it is rationally known that it is really stupid to take out the smart device when driving. Even knowing that it’s dangerous, you take out the device and still look at the message. It’s an addiction.

So how can we get rid of it?

For all addictions, people overvalue their willpower. At the same time, strong willpower is not enough – you must change your lifestyle. If you quit smoking, you leave the smoke breaks and find replacement activities; the addiction to smart devices goes the same way.

People waste their potential while on a smart device

It is very consciously worth reducing the time spent on smart devices. Establish a simple procedure for yourself: when the working day ends, well, you would like to reduce a little bit of the workday tension, then look ten minutes at your Instagram and Facebook. But then turn the smart device off and put it away for two to three hours.

If you sit on your smartphone for 20 to 30 minutes, and, for example, your child comes to ask something, and you say, “Ah, do what you want – mommy is resting a little bit”, then it’s showing signs of addiction.

Not to mention what an example you give to the child. Make sure you have certain rules. For example, if the children aren’t asleep, you don’t look at the smart device. And if the kids are asleep, you can take a little look again. But rules are not enough: you must also establish small punishments.

If you find yourself watching a smart device at this forbidden time, for example, then each time you’ll donate €5 to the political party you most hate. As with any other addiction, these methods work. Obviously, the majority of those who have a smart device problem think that it’s still not so serious – we can freely be in the car park with the smart device and that’s no addiction. In addition, there are still work things: we have very important work and e-mails that must be looked at all the time.

One characteristic of addiction is that a person justifies why he or she should do something. The most important step is to understand the problem. One thing to do is to note how many minutes or hours you spend on your smart device. If you write it up, you will see that this is an enormously large number and you will understand the problem. The human brain can focus on amazing things. Every person has this potential. But I see how people simply waste that potential while on a smart device.

I want to stress that in my estimation it is normal and good if, for instance, at work the ideas have run out and you just look at the smart device for a few minutes. It’ll help the brain rest a little.

The problem starts when you stay there. In any way or unintentionally, in the modern world, the need for information has grown. How do you make it clear to other people that you don’t want to be on the smartphone tonight?

Get rid of pseudo-job victories

One aspect of the problem is indeed that people have the feeling that they are better in their work if they respond faster to e-mails or messages. No, it’s not like that!

If you always make a reply quickly to an email or message at first, you never do anything important. You’re simply responding to e-mails and messages. This is the problem of today’s work – people have increasingly harder to understand what is original for a person trying to develop a product for several months or to come out with some new idea.

However, sending an instant message or email is an immediate thing. It’s fun for the brain and the person feels that he or she got something done. But we must get rid of such pseudo-job victories! Continuously checking your smartphone is worth limiting because it’s addictive.

Put your thinking ahead

If we want to be successful and innovative, we need to put our thinking ahead. We need to make the smartphones silent during work. Everyone will understand if you send this e-mail the next morning, the next day or the next week, because it’s not important.

What is important is that we use the capability that has been given to our brain. At the end of our lives, we don’t regret responding slowly to an e-mail.

What makes the human brain cool is that people are looking for something new and something exciting all the time. When we get new information on other people or just something interesting, it’s nice to our brain.

On the one hand, this is a problem, because it creates addiction, but on the other hand I am quite sure that it has also made us different from other animals. This is an important characteristic.

But we need to implement it properly. If we are on the side of more addiction, it might be easier to say that our brain is moving closer to other animals. However, if we can keep what makes us a person, we will continue to develop as a person and as a human being.


This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by the University of Tartu blog. The images are illustrative (courtesy of Pexels.com).

The dark side of smart devices

Smart devices simplify our lives and provide us with data really quickly – all the while taking over our mind for exchange; Jaan Aru, a researcher at the University of Tartu, offers a solution.

Have you ever tried to eat ten ice creams in a row? Too much of a good thing can make you sick. Excessive amount of vitamins creates an adverse reaction in the body. Too much sun is bad for your skin. If you eat too many strawberries, it’s bad for your stomach. It’s exactly the same with smart devices. They simplify our lives and provide us with data really quickly – all the while taking over our mind for exchange.

So, what’s the problem? Well, our brains like new input. Novelty is an important learning signal for the brain, because when an organism faces something the brain couldn’t foresee (something new), it’s time to update the brain’s model of the world. The brain has a trick to make sure learning new stuff works efficiently: novel input automatically leads to a pleasure sensation. This pleasure signal enhances learning and hence ensures that the novel aspect of the world is memorised. Smart devices offer plenty of novelty so they bring lots of pleasure, too. Each move of thumb on the smart device brings new input to the screen and hence causes small pleasure signals in your brain. The trouble is that in the brain pleasure always brings the risk of addiction.

Are you addicted to your smart device? All addictions share the symptom that the object of addiction (be it heroin, gambling or smart devices) hijacks attention. So if you are in a forest in spring, or enjoying the beach, or at an important meeting or just having a fun night out, or driving the car on a busy street and you desperately feel the need to check your smart phone, you are one of us – a “smart junkie”.

Being addicted to a smart device does not seem too bad: after all, one could be addicted to worse things. Right? I am not sure. Smart device addiction has at least three serious problems:

  • people are not aware of it – everyone knows that alcohol or drugs or gambling might be addictive, but smart devices are up to now seen only in positive light (yes, that’s a key reason why I am writing this: so you, my dear reader, would become aware of the problem);
  • smart-device addicts can also be dangerous: for example, many experiments with driving simulators have shown that people reading an e-mail or a text message while driving have more (simulated) accidents. Do you believe the experiments or want to give it a try yourself?
  • kids get addicted to smart-devices – we wouldn’t even think of giving cigarettes or alcohol or drugs to our kids, but we equip them with tablets and smartphones. That’s a problem. Compared with our “old” brains, our children’s brains are much more plastic, thus much more receptive to both good and bad things packed in with smart devices. An early exposure to smart devices turns children into really dexterous users, meanwhile causing deficits in some other things that kids are supposed to become most proficient in: comprehending others and linguistic development. Both of these uniquely human features need communication and direct contact with other human beings. When you hand your child a tablet, so you could sit undisturbed, engaged with your own smart device, you’re harming your brain, but you are also messing with your kid’s brain development at a critical moment.

Simple tricks to get a hold of the problem

Don’t be too upset: I know many smart people who have this addiction, I once was a smart junkie too. At one point, I understood that I couldn’t think as sharply anymore and my attention span had decreased. Again and again my attention moved to my new smart phone: has anyone sent me an email or texted me? My phone ruled my attention, while I needed to focus on my work. The object of addiction – the smart phone – dominated my mind and my world.

This is not a story of a miraculous cure – in the case of addiction, there is nothing like that. But I’ll give you a few simple tricks that helped me to get a hold of the problem.

  • Put your smart device into your bag when at work or school. Disable the notifications that make sound. Concentrate on your work for 25 minutes, then you can watch and hug your tablet as a reward for five minutes.
  • See whether you can increase the absence from your smart phone from 25 minutes to two hours to a full day? Your brain will thank you.
  • Don’t use a smart device while driving: experiments show that it increases the chances of a traffic accident, so it would be just plainly stupid.
  • Make up some simple rules for restricting the use of smart devices at home. For example: nobody uses a smart device while eating. Make it easier to resist the temptation: nobody brings a smart device to the table.
  • Your child should receive the first smart device as late as possible. Yes, it’s easier to let the device raise them, but the brain of a small child needs input that comes from the parents.
  • Do not let your child go to bed with a smart device. Children have an even harder time to put away the gadget than us, so it would keep them engaged, reducing their sleep time. But sleep is crucial for our brains, while Facebook is not. So do the smart choice for your kids and for yourself.


The English version was originally published by the University of Tartu blog. The cover image is illustrative.

Jaan Aru: Less is more – the modern working environment can paralyse the brain

The human brain is the most creative and flexible computing device in the known universe. Unfortunately, the modern working environment often turns this magical machine into a pocket calculator, writes Estonian researcher Jaan Aru.

Intuitively, it seems that being a workaholic is nowadays a key prerequisite for success, given the overabundance of information. We want to be on top of things; therefore, multitasking has become standard: several files open at the same time, Facebook and a newspaper open in the web browser. We also like to be accessible all the time (“always on”), to be able to react immediately to every e-mail or text message. And since there is always more information than there is time, workdays tend to be longer and longer.

This lifestyle is addictive, and, on the surface, it seems ultra-efficient. In reality, these are all bad practices if you want to get the most out of your brain and be creative.

Multitasking is mostly an illusion

The brain is by nature a really clumsy multitasker, and this is one of the greatest problems of today’s workplace. When the tasks at hand require some thinking, the brain performs them one by one – serially, not simultaneously. Thus, effective multitasking is mostly an illusion. Each time there is a work-related call or a beep from the phone, a notification from social media, the brain has to switch from one task to another. Importantly, there is a cost involved every time you switch tasks, as switching eats up some of your thinking resources.

The problem is, the brain has only limited resources available for thinking. Mental work is subjectively hard, and it is also hard for the brain. Thus, the brain is able to think creatively only for a certain amount of time. Conscious thinking is crucial for working out creative solutions and completing tasks that need attention. But as the resource of thinking is limited, one better use it wisely.

Work in peace

In this light, the following advice seems reasonable: when you need to solve a concrete task, concentrate only on this task and nothing else. When working, you should get rid of all distractions: close the web browser, Facebook, mailbox, smartphone, an annoying co-worker, and disable all updates and notifications. Work in peace.

“When you need to solve a concrete task, concentrate only on this task and nothing else.”

This suggestion might seem silly and wrong – “There are so many things going on at once; I have to be informed and quickly switch between tasks when needed”. That is understandable, and I am not suggesting that you would have to focus on one task for hours or decades – not at all. Concentrate on one task, but by all means take breaks.

As soon as you feel that your concentration is fading, leave the desk. A well-known rule of thumb is to work for 25 minutes and then rest for five. This means concentrating on a single task for 25 minutes; after that you can scan through your e-mails and peek at your phone for a couple of minutes. For the next 25 minutes, you may do something totally different altogether. For example, two sessions of mental work and one session of answering e-mails would be a good cycle.

Involve creativity

Another predictable objection might be that performing just one task at a time is an outdated way to work: “In ten years, all that focusing and pondering is not really needed anymore – a successful person will be the one who can analyse a lot of information fast and then react in the right way.” Fortunately or unfortunately, artificial intelligence algorithms are already better able to “analyse a lot of information fast, then react correctly” than humans in some fields. Ten years from now humans will not be required to perform those assignments. Multitasking at work will increase your chance of being unemployed in a decade.

“Multitasking at work will increase your chance of being unemployed in a decade.”

Therefore, we have to ask, in which aspects will humans still be better than machines in a decade? Which working habits should be taught to our children so that they can get a job in 10-20 years?

Simply put, machines are better than people for tasks where many variables have to be considered at once (ie, deciding which goods to order to be stored in a warehouse, taking into account the data from previous months and years). However, our brain currently outperforms each and every machine when it comes to jobs that involve creativity – finding innovative connections between different variables so that meaningful creative solutions can be reached (ie, coming up with concepts for Skype, Transferwise, Starship, or Mooncascade, just to name a few).

Crucially, coming up with creative solutions takes some delving into a problem (“deep thinking”), not just knowing a lot of facts superficially. This is because in our brains it always takes time and effort to first learn and then combine complex ideas. Any creative solution is represented in the brain as a neural activity pattern, but to create it, many smaller patterns need to be chained and combined in the right way. This takes time.

Bed, Bus and Bath

Also, perhaps a bit surprisingly, the answers don’t seem to appear more likely when one is working overtime and constantly “plugged in”. As the intellectual and scientific history of the world has shown, solutions for work-related problems quite often come while resting! If you want to be creative, keep in mind the three B’s that are related to solutions and answers – Bed, Bus and Bath. You need to master the topics at hand, do deep thinking, but then relax and give your brain a chance to do some magic.

“As the intellectual and scientific history of the world has shown, solutions for work-related problems quite often come while resting.”

Thus, based on neuroscience, when the goal is to have more innovation and more big ideas, all workers who need to think a lot should work less. In order to come up with new solutions, the focus should be on a single task at time. Instead of 12-hour workdays, there should be 12 minutes of dozing off in the middle of an eight-hour workday.


The opinions in this article are those of the author. The Estonian version of this post was originally written for Estonian newspaper, Äripäev, and appeared on Jaan Aru’s personal blog. The English version was originally published by the University of Tartu blog. Cover image by Carin Blass.

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