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Studies show people see their smartphones as part of themselves. Photo via Shutterstock

Losing your iPhone isn’t as bad as losing a limb, but it can feel that way, suggests new research from the University of Missouri, published this week.

In a paper titled “The Extended iSelf,” researchers built on the theory that people see their cell phones as part of themselves. Phone separation anxiety — something other researchers have called “NoMoPhobia,” or no-mobile phobia — leads to increased blood pressure and heart rate, and decreased performance at mental tasks. It also stoked anxiety in study subjects, and a feeling that an important part of themselves was missing.

The study also confirms research I helped direct at Carnegie Mellon University, showing the negative impact of distraction via technology on cognitive abilities. In that experiment, which we reported on in our book The Plateau Effect and in the New York Times Sunday Review, interruption by a single instant message led to test score results declining nearly 20 percent.

In the Missouri study, 40 carefully-selected subjects were told they were helping research a new kind of blood pressure monitoring device and asked to take a standard cognitive test. Then were then told their iPhone was interfering with the monitor and asked to move the phone across the room. During a second test, the phone rang, but subjects could not answer. Subjects heart rates rose an average of 4 beats per minute after the phone rang. The blood pressure rose also, which their test performance suffered.

The study also suggests a kind of security blanket effect that phones have on their owners — giving the iPhone back to study subjects resulted in an 11 beats per minute heart rate drop. Only iPhone users were included in the research, so it’s not scientifically valid to apply the study to owners of other kinds of smartphones, though it’s certainly logical.

Being separate from your phone makes your dumber, and raises your heart rate and blood pressure. That’s why I think smartphone, and technology in general, are a major contributing factor to the kind of restlessness I’m chronicling in The Restless Project.

Missouri study author Russell B. Clayton wrote that he believes the results support the “Extended Self Theory,” which holds that people can see external objects as an extension of themselves, and feel somehow incomplete without them. The theory that objects can become so familiar to people that they feel like parts of their body will not sound new to musicians or athletes who use tools like a baseball glove. The process has been called “embodiment.”

“External objects become viewed as part of self when we are able to exercise power or control over them, just as we might control an arm or leg,” Clayton writes. “The point is that when we are able to exercise power or control over our possessions, the more closely allied with the self the object becomes.”

It’s no surprise that an experienced carpenter would eventually feel that their hammer is an extension of their hand. In fact, that can be seen as a healthy, and even beautiful, manifestation of practicing an art craft. And maybe you feel like your phone is that important to your daily work.

It seems more likely, however, that this is a bad thing. Phone attachment sounds more like a compulsion that an art to me. Users in the study reported being on their phones 3.5 hours each day. That helps them stay “constantly connected to the world and therefore feel less alone.” That doesn’t sound healthy.

Most likely, it’s both good and bad. Either way, a study of 40 people can’t be used to draw such dramatic conclusions. It does build on an ever-growing body of research which should make you think about the role your smartphone plays in your life. If it’s raising your blood pressure, it’s probably not good. It’s probably making you more restless.

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