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Your smartphone knows which side of the brain you're using

The iDichotic iPhone app appears to be as reliable as traditional lab tests in determining which side of the brain is most involved in language processing.

Some people use the left, some the right, but which side of the brain do you primarily use for language? It may seem like a trivial question, but for one thing, if you ever have to undergo any type of brain surgery, the answer can help avoid damage to speech areas.

While lab tests can provide the answer, an app that involves a few minutes of concentration works just as well, according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Josef Bless of the University of Bergen expects to see more psychological testing via smartphones. Eivind Senneset/University of Bergen

Furthermore, a version of the app for patients with schizophrenia trains them to improve their focus so that when they hear voices (so-called "auditory hallucinations") they can tune them out.

These findings suggest that "smartphones can be used as a tool for psychological testing, opening up a wealth of exciting new possibilities," says Norwegian psychology researcher Josef Bless, who first came up with the idea of a brain test app a few years ago while listening to music on his phone.

The language app, called iDichotic, is free software for iOS devices, and it's been downloaded more than 1,000 times since it was first launched in 2011.

In 2012, Bless and colleagues at the University of Bergen and the Bergen fMRI Group, an interdisciplinary research group, decided to analyze the first 167 results they received from people who volunteered to submit their results, and they compared them with results from 76 people tested in labs in Norway and Australia.

"The results from the app were as reliable as those of the controlled laboratory tests," Bless says in a news release. "The app makes it possible to gather large volumes of data easily and inexpensively. I think we will see more and more psychological tests coming to smartphones."

The test itself is simple and takes fewer than 10 minutes to complete.

After filling out a quick questionnaire (age, sex, primary language, and so on), users listen (via headphones) to a series of sounds (ka, ba, ta, da, ga, and pa) over the course of three minutes and click on the ones they think they've heard. (Most of the time a different sound is played in each ear, and users must choose the one that is more prominent.)

A second "concentration" test requires users to listen for five minutes, focusing on the sound coming from the left and then the right. The results are shown at the end of the five minutes and the user can elect to send them anonymously to the researchers.

While it's a bit early to get too excited about fairly small-scale results, being able to use a phone for a variety of psychological tests may at the very least result in more widespread testing.