I’ve been thinking about doing a piece on smartphones in psychology for a while now – it seemed apposite given the death of Steve Jobs, and the release of the iPhone 4s – however the BPS research digest has just beaten me to it with a post entitled “Steve Jobs gift to cognitive science”. They cite several studies which have used several different kinds of smartphones (mostly iPhones) either to collect data using specific tasks or in some other way (monitoring activity/movement). The BPS article highlights applications of smartphones in research, but a quick search of the interwebs reveals that the studies it cites are just the tip of an ever-growing iceberg of ways in which people are using this technology.
First, there are the studies which use people’s reactions to the iPhone as a tool to examine some aspect of cognitive function – this one for instance, is concerned with the phenomenon of evaluative conditioning, but uses the central question of why people like the iPhone as a way of examining the literature.
Second, there are the studies which use the computing power of smartphones (which nowadays are seriously capable computing platforms) to instantiate some kind of psychologically relevant function. This article uses the iPhone as a platform for a novel evolutionary algorithm which detects multiple human faces, and has applications in robot visual systems.
Next there are the apps which aim to provide some kind of therapy, and there are a lot of these. Here are two which claim to provide CBT therapy on the iPhone: CBTreferee and iCouch. This article discusses the use of an app which aims to promote behavioural management of migraines in adolescents, while this one is a review of the iRecovery addiction recovery app, in the context of sex addiction. Needless to say, a great deal of work clearly needs to be done in evaluating whether and how these kinds of tools could be used clinically, and my mentioning them here is just to point out their existence, and definitely should not be taken as any kind of endorsement.
Then there are the massive numbers of psychology e-books which are now available through the Apple iTunes store and various other outlets (the Android market, Amazon Kindle store etc.). Many of the ‘classics’ in psychology by authors like Freud or Havelock-Ellis are available for free, and there are also a huge number of modern textbooks available. By far the most eye-watering ones that pop up are an (apparently) exhaustive six-volume treatise on “The psychology of adult spanking” I’ll say nothing else about that, except caveat emptor.
A special last mention has to go to a bunch of researchers at the Technical University of Denmark who have demonstrated a working version of a smartphone brain scanner. Using a wireless EEG headset and a Nokia N900 they’ve been able to instantiate real-time visualisation and brain-state decoding in a totally mobile package. Pretty mind-blowing stuff – the video below shows various demos, and is well worth a watch.
Whatever comes along in the future, it’s clear that mobile computing platforms like smartphones are not going away anytime soon, and in fact they may even become the dominant computing platform before too long. Researchers and therapists would be well advised to engage with the technology as soon as they can.