The Smartphone and the Super Thumb

The scholarship on brain plasticity suggests that there are certain activities and experiences that can change the structure and function of the human brain. While at first a controversial issue, neuroplasticity has become fairly mainstream. However, researchers are constantly finding effects on the brain that surprise us. One such finding came at the end of last year, from European researchers that found that touchscreen use actually changes the way that the brain and the thumb communicate.

Ghosh (2014) and his colleagues wanted to explore the changes our brains go through from the regular interaction with smartphone touch screens. While plasticity has been observed in experts of a specific practice like musicians or artists, Ghosh was interested in observing a “regular” human brain and the potential effects of regular smartphone use on the connectivity and sensitivity of the fingers used to operate touch screens.

Ghosh (2014) used data from smartphones regarding how often the phone was used and for what length of time, and measured EEG response to touch on the thumb, index, and forefingers. Ghosh (2014) wanted to see if there was a correlation between the phone use data and the sensitivity of the neurons to tactile stimulation.

Ghosh and his colleagues found that repetitive contact with the touchscreen reshaped sensory processing from the fingers measured, and that the brain was more responsive to tactile pressure on the fingertips following greater use of a touchscreen. The findings of Ghosh (2014) not only support the concept of neuroplasticity, but prompt new questions regarding how technology can shape our brains.

This article made me specifically wonder about the epigenetic effects that technology use could have, potentially creating maladaptive traits that will increase our dependence on technology or impair unrelated behaviors. Ghosh (2014) points out that the increased use of technology has been associated with motor deficits and even chronic pain disorders. These findings indicate that the connection between technology and the brain may come at functional costs. The potential for such harmful affects highlights the importance of continuing research on issues of brain plasticity and the potential for technology to negatively impact overall brain function.


The following link leads to a short video on the research conducted by Ghosh:



Arko Ghosh et al. “Use-Dependent Cortical Processing from Fingertips in Touchscreen Phone Users.” Current Biology, December 2014 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.026


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