The Science Behind Why You’re So Attached to Your Smartphone


It looks like Spike Jonze was onto something. If you saw Jonze's 2013 film Her and thought the relationship between the awkward Theodore and his operating system Samantha seemed preposterous, science would like to politely disagree with you. In fact, there's a lot of truth to the feelings Jonze mapped out in his screenplay.

According to studies conducted over the last few years, the way we connect to our phones is neurologically similar to the way we respond to our loved ones. So, in Her when Theodore says he feels "close" to Samantha, or when he falls into a despair when she disappears for a few days, or when he genuinely acknowledges that what he feels for her is love — yeah, that's pretty accurate.

In a 2011 column in the New York Times, strategist Martin Lindstrom wrote about his research focusing on neuroimaging in coordination with iPhone use. What Lindstrom found was that words like "addiction" were not quite right for the human-phone connections we engage in; the more appropriate word is "love."

Lindstrom tested the cross-sensory phenomenon synesthesia to dive a little more deeply into our phone attachment, probing at issues like why we think we "hear" a phone vibrating or "see" a phone ring. Within this research he discovered something else telling, which is that phone use activates the insular cortex of the brain — an area usually associated with feelings of love and compassion. In short, what your phone makes you feel emotionally lights up the same area of the brain that a loved one can make you feel emotionally. 

Image Credit: Apnatimepass

Jane Vincent, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economic's Media and Communications department, has also done significant work on the topic and was interviewed recently by the Economist about "electronic emotions." Her larger point is that our human connections to phones are very complex and connected to memories. Our phones subconsciously elicit emotional responses from us which Vincent dubs "electronic emotion," defining the term as "an emotion we would have in our day-to-day life, but we have it as a result of holding our mobile phone in our hand."

Her toys with this idea of electronic emotion and takes it one step further turning the algorithm that is Samantha into what we would identify as a person. In essence, her character is an extreme personification of what our phones already make us feel.

In addition to its real-life resonance, the premise of Her is really just a modernized version of the human fascination we've held for a long time. From Pygmalion when he crafted his perfect woman, to Frankenstein and his monster, to the birth of Mewtwo or the proliferation of dating games across the world, our art mimics our desire for perfection and domestication — feelings which we are now extending to our daily electronics. 

Still, while we may love our phones and using them as domesticated objects of perfection there is still one ingredient missing for the Her fantasy relationship to become reality. It won't be until our phones are autonomous, memory-forming, engaging entities of their own that the movie premise will be more than just a premise.