College students choose smartphones over food, researchers find

Phone usage was found to have similar reinforcing tendencies as eating or doing drugs.

  • An experiment out of Buffalo shows that students are willing to put off eating in order to look at their phones.
  • The subjects were willing to pay ever increasing amounts of money to use their phones even as the price of food remained the same.
  • The finding doesn't prove phone addiction is a thing, but it makes it possible.

In a turn of events that should surprise nobody, researchers at the University of Buffalo recently discovered that college students would rather go hungry than be separated from their phones.

Though the study's data gives us new evidence that smartphone addiction does, indeed, exist, it doesn't quite settle the issue.

What does the study say?

In a series of tests where subjects had to choose to spend pretend money on time with their phones or food, they went with their phones by a shocking margin.

In the experiment, students were separated from their phones for two hours and had no food for three. At the end of the separation period, they were taken to a computer where they could complete a task to earn either time with their phone or a snack. After they chose what they wanted, the cost of their selection was increased the next time they were asked.

The cost of the items was measured in two ways: one test involved fake money, with minutes of cell phone use costing up to 1,000 dollars earned by computer tasks. The other test measured the cost in pure work, such as the number of mouse clicks needed to complete the required tasks to gain more phone time.

In almost every case, the amount that the students were willing to pay to use their phones outpaced the amount they would spend on food. The researchers stated they were, nevertheless, "very surprised by the results."

What does that mean?

The press release claims this is the first study to suggest that smartphone use is a reinforcing behavior. That means that it is an activity with a positive consequence that causes an individual to want to do it again. While the researchers are quick to remind us that reinforcement is not identical to addiction, it is a prerequisite. They were also shocked to find that the subjects valued phone time over eating, which is also a reinforcing behavior.

Study lead author Sara O'Donnell explained,

We knew that students would be motivated to gain access to their phones, but we were surprised that despite modest food deprivation, smartphone reinforcement far exceeded food reinforcement across both methodologies.

So, am I addicted to my phone? I can stop anytime I want, I promise!

It is too soon to say that. Addiction is a medical term that implies several things. Just because people have a self-feeding drive to use their phones doesn't mean they are addicted to their phone in the same way they are addicted to nicotine or alcohol. As always, more studies are needed.

This is still a great starting point for learning the answer to that question and even for understanding why some people use their phones much more than others. Sara O'Donnell explained that, "While reinforcing value does not equate to addiction, it seems likely that if smartphone addiction becomes a valid diagnosis, those individuals would have high smartphone reinforcement, just as individuals with alcohol use disorders have high alcohol reinforcement."

Ask yourself, have you ever been willing to give up food in order to check your phone? It seems you aren't alone if you have. While the jury is still out on if this means we can be addicted to the things, maybe taking a break isn't a bad thing.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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