July 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

happy-phoneI was definitely a slow starter when it came to mobile phones, and so the excitement and anticipation of getting one was almost unbearable. I remember being brought quickly back down to earth as I discovered that the phone didn’t bring as much freedom with it as I had expected. Phone-free zones were everywhere and every adult I encountered had their own set of rules about how I was to use my new piece of technology.

“Don’t have your phone on at the table.”

“Turn off your phone in the cinema. “

“Mobile phones must be switched off for the duration of the flight”

“You can have your phone back at the end of the day Nathan.”

“If I see you on your phone one more time…”

The list goes on. This is the way things were but there is definitely a change afoot, one which is probably most displeasing to the several unnamed authoritarians quoted above.  Constantly having your mobile phone in hand is no longer socially unacceptable: even at formal events you can sit typing away on your phone regardless of what is going on around you, it’s okay because you’re probably tweeting! So, as we are moving ever closer to having mobile phones instead of hands I delved into the world of science news to find out what scientists currently have to say about mobile phone use. For once, what I found was fairly positive.

The first bit of good news is that mobile-phone use is not related to an increase in brain cancer according to researchers at the University of Manchester. This study, published in the journal Bioelectromagnetics, used publically available data from the UK Office of National Statistics to look at trends in rates of newly diagnosed brain cancers in England between 1998 and 2007. There is an ongoing controversy about whether radio frequency exposure from mobile phones increases the risk of brain cancer, but this study concluded that there is no biological mechanism for radio waves to directly damage our genes and so cause cancer. If there is a link between the two, it is more likely that mobile phone use may promote growth in existing tumours (so maybe it’s not all good news).

Secondly, dialling certain numbers may have the power to change our emotional states. By typing the numbers that correspond to the letters in a word like ‘love’, we activate the meaning of the word in our minds and so, if the word is a positive one, we will gain pleasure from typing it.  Sascha Topolinski (a psychological scientist from the University of Würzburg in Germany) published his results in the journal Psychological Science. During the study, volunteers were given mobile phones with only numbers, not letters, visible on the keys. They were then asked to type a series of number sequences that corresponded to positive words (like 54323 for ‘love’) and negative words (like 26478 for ‘fear’). As this study was in Germany the words are, surprisingly enough, in German so the codes used here probably won’t match up with what you think the codes would be. Though the volunteers had no idea what the number sequences meant or corresponded to, on average they reported a preference for typing the number sequences that corresponded to positive words.  Topolinski related these findings to the psychological concept of ‘embodiment’ where certain body movements can make you think about related ideas. Obviously typing negative words won’t make you feel too special so, at the risk of sounding like a hippie, try and stick to positive vibes (man).

If you’re feeling a bit down, just remember you probably won’t get brain cancer from your beloved phone. If you want to spread some joy, here is a list of words you can type, tweet and text:

love, happy positive, fantastic, amazing, great, stupendous, magnificent, magical, spatula, bodacious, winspiration, gags, laugh, chortle, titter, bacon, hilarity

Over and out.