The iPhone Is a Musical Instrument to the Human Brain

The neural area in charge of thumb movement becomes stronger as one fiddles away on a touchscreen phone.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

A musician's brain is stimulated just by picking up an instrument. Now, scientists have found that people who use smartphones activate and strengthen specific regions of their brains just like a violinist might.

"The digital technology we use on a daily basis shapes the sensory processing in our brains–and on a scale that surprised us," Arko Ghosh, a neuroscientist from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, said in a statement. Ghosh, noticing the ubiquity of smartphones, was interested in analyzing how constant finger movements on the screen was reflected in brain activity.

To find out, he and his team recorded the differences in brain responses between smartphone users and people who used older phones. To do this, they connected the thumb, index, and middle fingertips of 26 touchscreen users and 11 people who used traditional cellphones with buttons, to a machine that measures electrical activity in the brain. (All participants in the study were right-handed.)

After running a series of tests, the researchers found that smartphone users had more powerful somatosensory cortexes, the area in the brain that commands the thumb, as compared with people who used old cellphones. Their findings indicate that the neural mechanics that go into using a smartphone are more complex than that of a traditional phone, the team reported Tuesday in the journal Current Biology.

“I was really surprised by the scale of the changes introduced by the use of smartphones,” Ghosh said. Using a smartphone regularly is similar to playing the violin, he said, but with two distinct differences: The length of time that someone spent owning a smartphone did not affect their neural activity, like it does in violinists, and the more recently someone used a touchscreen phone, the stronger their brains responded to the test, unlike with violinists.

It's a nuanced distinction but comes down to this: Musical skill is measured in years spent practicing. Mastering a smartphone comes down to shortening the time that's passed since you last picked it up.