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Want to Up Your Test Scores? Take a Break from Your Phone.

I have an experiment for you: put your phone on vibrate, place it in your pocket or on the table next to you, and try to read a book.

Chapter 1.

It was the best of times,

it was the worst of times,

it was the age of wisdom,

it was


it was the age of


I didn't say it would be a long experiment.

The Research

In 2005, New Scientist published an article by Will Knight that warned, “the relentless influx of emails, cellphone calls and instant messages received by modern workers can reduce their IQs by more that smoking marijuana.”

In 2005. 2005!

In those quaint days of the early Aughts, two years before Apple announced the iPhone, we were being warned of the negative effects of dings and buzzes. It seems almost comical now. In the article, Knight describes how a study of office workers saw an average 10-point decrease in IQ points, despite the workers receiving instructions to disregard any calls or messages:

Far from boosting productivity, the constant flow of messages and information can seriously reduce a person’s ability to focus on tasks, the study of office workers found. Eighty volunteers were asked to carry out problems solving tasks, firstly in a quite environment and then while being bombarded with new emails and phone calls. Although they were told not to respond to any messages, researchers found that their attention was significantly disturbed. Alarmingly, the average IQ was reduced by 10 points – double the amount seen in studies involving cannabis users… [and] men were twice as distracted as women.

Other research tells us of similar negative effects.

...and I sincerely doubt anyone reading this is surprised.

In another article, "Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain," Daniel J Levitin notes, "Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking." He cites Neuroscientist Russ Poldrack, who found that "learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain," making it more difficult to retrieve. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, “People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves. When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” Levitin notes, too, that "...the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time"; that "lots of multitasking requires decision-making [which] is also very hard on your neural resources"; and that "little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones."

Further, Duke University researchers Madeleine J. George and Candice L. Odgers write in Perspectives on Psychological Science, “... research to date has consistently shown that mobile device and media usage prior to bedtime is associated with reduced sleep time and quality.”


  • Constant distraction lowers IQ by an average of 10 points.

  • Multitasking creates a mental fog.

  • Learning while multitasking causes you to store information in the wrong part of the brain, making it more difficult to retrieve.

  • Every buzz or ding of your phone represents another energy-sapping decision.

  • Checking your phone in the evenings disrupts your sleep.

Okay, so do I toss my phone in a lake or what?

If you can, go for it! ;)

Probably not, though - at this point, it is probably impractical to do away with your smartphone, but there are three changes every ACT student should make in the days leading up to the exam (or for that matter, every student with a big project or test upcoming):

  1. At a minimum, a growing body of research suggests that using smartphones in the evening may impede sleep. In the days leading up to the test, then, ditch the phone after dinner. You'll sleep better, and that will make you function better.

  2. Keep the phone far away when you study. You cannot multitask. You may think you can, but you can't. Don't attempt to study in the presence of a device that constantly reminds you of all of the other things you could be doing. That just isn't wise.

  3. You'll want to be laser-focused on test day. Leave the phone at home. If you don't know where the testing location is, map it before the test date.

If these seem like monumental steps to take before you take an exam that could determine your college future, reflect on that - maybe a break from your phone is just what the doctor ordered.

- Randy Biggs

Owner, Heritage College Prep

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