All that swiping and texting may not be as bad as you think. A new study shows using a touchscreen can actually make you smarter

By Rachael Schultz
December 23, 2014
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You might have guessed this, but now science confirms: All that time spent typing and swiping on a smartphone is affecting your brain. But here's the catch, the news is positive. The thumb dexterity you develop using a touchscreen increases the activity and size of certain areas of your brain, reports a new study in the journal Current Biology. (Want to boost your brainpower even more? Try one of The Best Ways to Pump Up Your Mental Muscles.)

Here's how it works: Every part of your body has a corresponding area in the emotional center of the brain. The sizes of these areas are in constant flux depending on how often you use the body part. Violinists, for example, have larger brain sections connected with their fingers, thanks to the incredible control they have over their hands while playing. (Check out Your Brain On: Music.)

Based on this knowledge of musicians, Swiss researchers decided to see if anything similar happened in people who exercise their fingers all day on a screen. The team tracked the brain activity of touchscreen and flip phone users and found that the two groups had completely different activity in their cerebral cortex-the part of the brain associated with voluntary movement, coordination of sensory information, and learning and memory.

Not only did smartphone users have larger brain areas connected to thumb dexterity compared to conventional cellphone users, but their brain plasticity was actually similar to that of violinists-meaning all the time you spend touching a screen is actually training your brain in a similar manner of learning an instrument.

The only difference? There are two, actually: For violinists', brain activity depended on the age at which they started playing, whereas smartphone users saw the same level of activity if they first used a touchscreen days ago or years ago. Additionally, the more recently someone used a smartphone, the greater the activity and size of the brain area, whereas once a violinists' brain is conditioned, their last performance doesn't matter to their heightened brain activity.

Of course, while exercising your thumbs may benefit your brain, there are other ways that all that time on the device can actually harm your health. Find out how with Your Brain On: Your iPhone.