Separation from our mobiles impacts our cognitive, emotional and physiological wellbeing. Image: Getty.
Show Hide image

Can't survive without your phone? You could be suffering from nomophobia

Our smartphones are fast becoming extensions of ourselves. So what happens when we're separated from them?

You could be one of the millions of people suffering from Nomophobia (or, as it’s also known, Smartphone Separation Anxiety). It’s the pathological fear, anxiety, or discomfort associated with being without your mobile phone. In other words, it’s the sheer panic that descends the moment you suspect that you’ve accidentally left it at home. Or that sinking feeling of despair when it’s on 1 per cent charge. And the sense of relief when someone offers you a charger.

The findings from last years Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey showed that of the 35 million smartphone owners in the UK, one in six looks at their phone more than 50 times a day. Nearly a third reach for their smartphones within five minutes of waking up (not including turning off the alarm). And I reluctantly admit that I fall into the 11 per cent of people that scroll through their smartphones immediately after waking up.

Smartphones have morphed into “physical extensions of ourselves”, and separation from our mobiles could have a significant impact on our cognitive, emotional and physiological wellbeing. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, which aimed to investigate the psychological and physiological changes in participants when they were separated from their smartphones and prevented from answering them.

The research team from the University of Missouri asked forty participants to complete various cognitive tasks, once with their smartphones in their possession and once without. As predicted, the results of the study showed that when the participants were separated from their smartphones it resulted in poor cognitive performance, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, and greater levels of self-reported anxiety.

Their findings supported the Extended Self Theory, a concept formulated by marketing professor Russell Belk. The theory proposes that “an individual’s possessions, whether knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, can become an extension of one’s self”. In other words, when we exercise power over our possessions, in the same way in which we would control our limbs, for example, eventually the external object is viewed as part of our self.  In line with this theory, the research team suggests that when a person loses a close possession, like a smartphone, it should be viewed as a “loss or lessening of self”.

This is not entirely surprising. Nowadays smartphones are more than just gadgets, they are ever-present aspects of our daily lives. Our mobile phones are like portable windows to the outside world, providing us with instant access to vast amounts of information, and a sense of connection to our social circles.

However, one of the limitations of this study is its small sample size, and so the results may not be very representative in terms of the wider population. However, the research team concludes that subsequent research should aim to investigate whether “other technological devices are capable of becoming incorporated into the extended self”. This could be an important area for future research, especially since the International Data Corporation predicts that there will be more that 2bn “Internet of Things” devices installed by 2020. The Internet of Things – a popular phrase used to describe the technology in which our devices are connected and controlled over the Internet – is growing rapidly. “Smart homes”, in which our washing machines, fridges, smoke detectors and other household appliances are connected up to the internet, constitute a major part of this trend.

Tech companies such as Google have shared their plans to link their devices with appliances in our homes. And earlier this month, Apple launched their smart home platform HomeKit, which will allow a number of products to be controlled by its voice command system Siri. iPhones, iPads and iWatches could be used to dim the lights, determine whether a kitchen window is open, and even detect home air quality.

It’s exciting to see technology advancing in this way. However, the findings of this study raise a number of questions. Are we becoming unhealthily reliant on technology? If so, how can we develop a healthier attachment to our gadgets? Or is this even something to be worried about? Most importantly, since an increasing number of devices are being connected to the Internet, should we also be concerned about the repercussions of humans becoming connected to an increasing number of devices?

Show Hide image

Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.