This Is Your Brain on E-Mail

By Sheena Mohan  |  Posted 07-05-2005

Put your hands on your head and step away from the BlackBerry. Okay, we know that e-mail and other technology can be frighteningly addictive, but could it actually be worse than drugs?

The Hewlett-Packard Co. commissioned a study on "info-mania" that suggests that too-frequent checking of e-mail and voice mail can lower your IQ up to ten points—which, for those keeping score, is a greater drop than researchers found in studying the effects of smoking marijuana.

The study, parts of which were released in the U.K. this spring, is more alarmist than scientific. Conducted by Professor Glenn Wilson of the University of London, the study showed that when allowed to receive e-mail, instant messages and phone calls while they were taking an IQ test, people scored a full ten points lower.

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, argues that mass media such as TV, the Internet and video games help us develop intellectually.

He suggests that while e-mail can be a significant distraction, "Some people don't need to focus their full mental capacity on whatever they're doing [at work], and a drop in IQ points is a trade-off they'll take." The compulsion to check e-mail or favorite Web sites frequently "is related to the brain's reward architecture," says Johnson. "You associate receiving good news with receiving e-mail, so you are always checking back for that little bit of reward, even though the site or your inbox hasn't fundamentally changed since you checked it ten minutes ago."

So why would a company that sells technology products conduct such a study, let alone release the results?

According to H-P spokeswoman Lucy Thomas, the "HP Guide to Avoiding Info-Mania" was just a friendly warning to office workers against the dangers of "overuse and addiction to the technology." Hopelessly addicted info-maniacs can take heart: The study reported no long-term IQ effects from info-mania.