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Are smartphones making us lazy thinkers?

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NBC News - Phone numbers. Directions. That guy who plays the main character in "Gremlins." These are the kind of things people look up on their phones.

But is that making us lazier? Are we mental couch potatoes outsourcing all our thinking to our devices?

It's too early to tell, but a new study from the University of Waterloo in Canada says that there is connection between reliance on smartphones and not thinking deeply about how to solve problems.

"There are problems that we can't Google for answers," Gordon Pennycook, co-author of the study and doctoral candidate in psychology at Waterloo, told NBC News.

"The problem with relying on the Internet too much is that you can't know you have the correct answer unless you think about it in an analytical or logical way."

To be clear, the study doesn't say that smartphones cause people to become lazy thinkers. The results simply indicate that people who are "intuitive thinkers" — meaning they act on instinct instead of analyzing problems — tend to rely on their phones more often.

According to Pennycook, highly intelligent people tend to analyze and work out problems logically, often second-guessing themselves. He and study co-author Nathaniel Barr gave 660 subjects a test. Those who rated as less intelligent reported looking up information on their smartphones more often.

The pair stressed that their study was only a first step. They wanted to get that correlation out there, they said, so that more research could be done on how smartphones affect the brain.

Eric Kandel, winner of the Nobel prize and neuropsychiatrist at Columbia University, thinks it's too early to know whether relying on a smartphone affects critical thinking skills.

He told NBC News that it "probably facilitates multi-tasking and broadens the knowledge that is available to us," but that it could "compromise our long-term memory storage and ability to retain information over the long term."

"We need empirical evidence to validate or falsify these impressions," he said.

Smartphones are so ubiquitous now it's hard to believe that the iPhone has been around for less than a decade. The World Wide Web is only 25 years old.

"If we become overly reliant on external sources of information rather than learning anything ourselves or thinking critically, it might be damaging," Barr told NBC News. "But because smartphones are so new, we simply don't know yet."

In 2009, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass found that heavy multitaskers (i.e. people who reported often doing things like emailing, surfing the Web and watching TV at the same time) were less able to focus on a single task. Ironically, they were also worse at switching tasks successfully, meaning multitasking made them worse at multitasking.

Nass died in 2013, but his research lived on. It has been cited by many as a sign that constantly being plugged in and distracted might not be a great thing.

One of those people is Nicholas Carr, who has written several books about how the Internet is changing the way we think. His most recent release is "The Glass Cage: Automation and Us."

"What we have created with smartphones is an environment of constant distraction and interruption," Carr told NBC News.

"It's only when we are attentive, when we can focus on an argument or train of thought, that we tap into the deepest forms of thought," he said. " Conceptual thinking, critical thinking — those just don't happen if you're constantly distracted."

The problem is that we evolved to constantly crave new information, he said, which would have been useful in assessing threats and finding food back in the caveman days. Our brain rewards new discoveries with dopamine. Now, with Yelp and Facebook and Google, we can continuously satisfy this primal craving, he said.

Is that an entirely bad thing? Smartphones make life a lot more convenient and could benefit the brain in ways we have not studied yet. It might be that certain types of Internet usage make us smarter and other types do the opposite. As a society, Pennycook said, we need to ask, "What areas do we need to preserve our internal thinking instead of outsourcing it?"

On an individual level, there is a reason why adults are going to retreats where smartphones and laptops are banned, and are downloading apps that cut off the Internet.

"There are some people, maybe because they might not have a deep thought anyway, who think this doesn't matter," Carr said. "Personally, I think there is something lost in being distracted all of the time."
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