Are smartphones WEAKENING our senses?

Are smartphones WEAKENING our senses? Expert claims our reliance on the devices is slowly diminishing our smell, touch, hearing and taste because they reduce our face-to-face interaction with people and the world

  • Susan Denham Wade is the author of A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions
  • UK-based graduate of Harvard Business School, 55, says over-reliance on smartphones is steadily diminishing our sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste
  • We are designed to utilise all our senses simultaneously in the real world. When we don’t, our other senses – and our mental health – may suffer, she suggests 

Four out of our five basic senses are being made redundant – and we may have the smartphone to blame, according to an expert.

Susan Denham Wade, 55, the UK-based author of A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions, spent four years researching and writing her book, which is a pioneering study of the history of human sight through the ages, and believes our over-reliance on smartphones is steadily diminishing our sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste.

The devices may also be to blame, at least in part she claims, for higher levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression within society, especially among younger people.

The former television executive, who was born in Australia but has lived in the UK since 1994, explained this is because our five basic senses evolved with the purpose of interacting with the natural environment, and with each other, in person.

Four out of our five basic senses are being made redundant – and we may have the smartphone to blame, according to an expert (stock image)

In other words, we are designed to utilise all our senses simultaneously in the real world. When we don’t, our other senses – and our mental health – may suffer.

Mother-of-four Denham Wade, a graduate of Harvard Business School, told FEMAIL: ‘The seeds of our dominant visual culture were sown long before smartphones, television or electricity.

‘The journey of human sight really begins with the discovery of fire one million years ago, which first allowed us to see in the dark.

‘Fire brought light to the caves where we found protection, and where around 50,000 years ago we began making images on the walls, and carving figurines from wood, and other materials.

‘This was the germination of civilisation, when we first began to understand the world, and ourselves, through imagery.

Mother-of-four Susan Denham Wade is a graduate of Harvard Business School

‘Over the passing millennia, we continued to develop our visual-led culture with new inventions, such as the mirror, writing, and moving pictures. Each, in turn, had profound, largely positive effects on the human psyche and changed society in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen. Sight became, slowly but inevitably, humanity’s ruling sense.

‘The smartphone could be seen as the pinnacle of these achievements, in that it combines many forms of visual technologies within one small, practical device.

‘We can now observe the world around us, communicate via text and social media, and ping pictures of our everyday activities to friends and family through a small screen, without ever leaving the house.

‘But at the same time, smartphones have enslaved our eyes like nothing before. They are the first thing we reach for in the morning, and the last thing we check at night.

‘Throughout our daily lives we rely on our smartphones for work, shopping and banking, news and information, and for keeping in touch with others, to name but a few applications.

‘This is the height of convenience, but the trouble lies in the fact that we evolved to use all of our senses.

‘We spend hours staring at a screen and while the eyes feast, our other senses – hearing, smell, touch, and taste – starve.

‘While visual technology should be recognised for its vital role in making us who we are today, it is now dismantling many of the things that we need to be happy.’

The devices may also be to blame, at least in part Denham Wade claims, for higher levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression within society, especially among younger people (stock image)

Denham Wade did, however, identify the world’s first smartphone, the Apple iPhone, as one of the crowning glories of mankind’s technological achievements over the last million years.

It tops a list of the most important inventions that have shaped humanity’s perspective and worldview in her book.

The tome provides a fascinating account of human advancement through 11 visual inventions which, in addition to the smartphone, also include TV and film, spectacles, the written word, the printing press, photography, industrialised light, art, the telescope, mirrors, and making fire.

But while mobile devices certainly offer a feast for the eyes, they may be starving our other senses, she warns.

Thankfully Denham Wade says there are some simple – and free – ways to re-invigorate all our senses and, in so doing, protect our mental health. 

SMELL 

Our sense of smell, which can’t be stimulated by a touchscreen, is extraordinary. While it was once believed that humans could only distinguish around 10,000 different smells, the latest research suggests that humans can detect just as many smells as dogs, being able to discriminate over one TRILLION different odours.

It is also important to our general wellbeing. A 2016 academic study found a strong link between loss of the sense of smell (known as ‘anosmia’) and anxiety and depression. Those with a reduced ability to smell were more likely to be depressed, and the severity of symptoms worsened with the severity of the loss of smell.

A 2016 academic study found a strong link between loss of the sense of smell (known as ‘anosmia’) and anxiety and depression (stock image)

Try: Studies have shown that the sense of smell can be enhanced by sniffing four different aromas twice a day for around 30 seconds each.

Train your nose by smelling common items with rich and pleasing aromas that you can find around the house, such as chocolate, fresh coffee, tea leaves, herbs, cheese or wine every day.

Make sure to sniff for a little longer than you would normally, as this means that more odour molecules are inhaled which, in turn, boosts your brain’s natural ability to process aroma information.

TASTE 

The average person has around 10,000 taste buds, which are located not only on the tongue but also on the back of the throat, the epiglottis and the esophagus. 

Humans can detect five different types of taste: salty, bitter, sour, sweet, and umami (the monosodium glutamate (MSG) taste, often described as a ‘savoury’ flavour). Some scientists also propose a sixth taste, oleogustus, which is the unique taste of fat.

We have evolved to like foods that have sweet, fatty or salty tastes as they are high in calories, which provide the body with energy. In the past this increased the chances of survival but, today, we eat too much of these foods.

But eating the wrong types of food can impact our sense of taste. While we may enjoy sweet, fatty and salty flavours, such as can be found in abundance in fast food, overindulgence can desensitise the taste buds, meaning that other foods do not taste as good as before.

Smoking can also dull our taste. A 2009 study found that smokers had flatter taste buds than non-smokers, as well as a reduced blood supply to the tongue.

The biggest problem with eating sugary, fatty food is that it makes us crave more of the same, leading us to pile on the pounds. And while highly-refined foods can temporarily make us feel better, stimulating the brain to release feel-good hormones such dopamine, in the long term they can contribute to depression.

A 2018 study led by University College London found that repeatedly eating foods containing a lot of sugar or fat can changes neurotransmitters in the brain that control our mood.

Try: To restore your sense of taste, cut down on junk food and, if you smoke, kick the habit. Swapping highly-processed foods for healthier options can also help improve our mood. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that adding extra portions of fresh fruit and veg significantly improved happiness and wellbeing.

The sense of smell is strongly connected to taste, so take quick sniffs of your food to bring the aromas into your nose and improve the flavour. When chewing, draw a small amount of air into your mouth to help the aromas reach your nasal cavity. Also, make sure to chew properly as this allows more of the aromas to be detected.

TOUCH 

We all like to touch and to be touched – it’s part of being human. A 2016 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review found that being touched reduces stress levels and promotes relational, psychological, and physical well-being in adults.

Touch is believed to be the first sense that we develop. The ability to feel is contained within the bottom layer of the skin, the dermis, which has more than five million nerve endings used to detect all the sensations we feel, such as pressure, vibration, smooth, rough, hot and cold. The most sensitive parts of the body are our hands and fingertips, feet, lips, face, neck, and tongue.

Unfortunately, however, we are experiencing far less variety in our experience of touch because we spend so much time using technology. For the most part, our fingers are used to tap away on keyboards, swipe touchscreens, and click on computer mouses or games consoles for most of the day, while the rest of our bodies remain static.

WE CAN’T TURN A BLIND EYE TO OUR SENSES BEING SIDE-LINED 

Denham Wade said: ‘Hearing, touch, smell, and taste were once as important as sight, and our lifelines for survival.

‘Now they are being made redundant. Seeing dominates our lives, while our other senses are gradually being side-lined.

‘We can’t turn a blind eye to this as the consequences in terms of diminishing wellbeing are clear to see.

‘It turns out, then, that the long-held advice to “wake up and smell the roses” is pretty spot on!

‘If we want to be healthier and happier then we need to switch off the smartphone, get outside, and interact with the world.’ 

Try: Our sense of touch is connected with our sense of sight, so be sure to focus on what you are touching.

Also, make sure to look after your fingertips. Each fingertip has more than 3,000 touch receptors so keep them smooth and soft. If the skin on your fingers is rough or calloused then they will be less sensitive to touch.

You can further stimulate your sense of touch by spending a little time each day handling objects with different textures, such as satin sheets, a bar of soap, a pebble and rough sandpaper.

Also consider trying tai chi. Researchers at Harvard University found that those who regularly practice this relaxing form of exercise have a better sense of touch because they focus on their hands and fingertips while they move.

HEARING 

Like the other basic senses, our sense of hearing is extraordinary. We have evolved to hear sounds between 20Hz, the equivalent of the lowest pedal on a pipe organ, to 20,000Hz, such as is made by the high-pitched buzzing of a mosquito.

The human ear is so sensitive that it can detect sound vibrations in the eardrum smaller than the width of an atom.

Hearing has also been shown to help keep us calm. A 2011 experiment conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison involved a group of girls aged between seven and 12 who were each subjected to a stressful situation: giving a presentation to strangers. A quarter of the girls were allowed to see their mothers face-to-face, another quarter to speak to their mums on the phone, the third quarter to text, and the fourth to sit on their own quietly.

The study found that the girls who talked to their mums on the phone calmed down as much as those who interacted with their mums directly, as measured by stress hormones.

The girls who texted with their mums, however, calmed down as little as the girls who had been left on their own – showing that hearing and speaking with people is far more important to our wellbeing than messaging them.

Try: Exercise your ears on a daily basis by trying to hone in on sounds, working out where they are coming from. You can do this by taking a walk and listening to birdsong or other natural sounds, or at home by placing two speakers in different parts of the room to locate where the clashing sounds—played at a comfortable volume—originate.

Meditation is also an ideal way to hone your hearing. Do so in a park where you’ll be surrounded by different sounds. As you take deep breaths, try to pinpoint their location.

Most importantly, make time to talk and listen to people, whether friends, family or strangers.

SIGHT 

Our sight, as we have seen, has become mankind’s ruling sense. The human eye has more than two million working parts and is the second most complex organ, after the brain. Our eyes are so sensitive that we can recognise approximately 10million different colours and shades.

Ironically, however, our addiction to visual stimuli like smartphones and other devices is resulting in poorer eyesight. Gazing at a screen for hours on end has been shown to increase the risk of eye problems, as well as being unhappy.

While decades of research has never established a direct link between watching TV and myopia, there is an indirect effect. It has been shown that children who spend more time outside, where the light is at least 10 times brighter than artificial light, are less likely to develop short-sightedness.

Indeed, a study led by the University of Cambridge in 2011 found that for each additional hour spent outdoors per week, the odds of developing short-sightedness reduces by two per cent.

It is also well documented that daylight releases the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin, which is the key hormone that stabilises our mood, warding off anxiety and depression and keeping us feeling happy.

Try: Make sure to spend at least 10 to 20 minutes per day outside, as this will stimulate the production of serotonin.

Eat more leafy vegetables, as well as broccoli, eggplants, and eggs. They contain high amounts of carotenoids, which are believed to help protect the eye from the damaging effects of blue light as well as reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration – the leading cause of permanent vision loss in people aged over 60.

Practicing mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes every day is a great way to develop all your senses, including your eyesight. Another way to improve your sight is to pay more attention to your peripheral vision (the things we see to the sides of our central focus).

Perhaps most importantly, reduce the amount of time you spend staring at a screen. As well as causing eye fatigue, research suggests that the blue light that screens emit can lead to permanent vision changes, and could increase the risk of macular degeneration. 

When you have to look at a screen for a prolonged period, such as when working, use a blue light filter app or blocking glasses, and follow the 20/20/20 rule: look away from the screen every 20 minutes, focusing on an object that is at least 20 feet away, and doing so for at least 20 seconds.

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