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Distracted driving: why your brain wants you to check your phone

We all do it. You may be having coffee with a friend, watching a movie or finishing up a last-minute report for your boss. Suddenly, your phone emits that enticing sound—alerting you to an incoming text, email or social media notification. Without thinking, you instinctively reach for your phone to see what’s new.

While, intellectually, we may realize it’s silly—or even impolite—to check our phones, it’s surprisingly hard to resist. This is because of how our brains have learned to respond to our cell phones.

Pavlov’s dog

You may know about the famous behavioral experiment by psychologist Ivan Pavlov. He knew that when his dog was expecting food, he would salivate. Pavlov began ringing a bell whenever he fed his dog, which also resulted in salivation. After some conditioning, he found that his dog would salivate whenever he heard the sound of a bell—even if there was no food—because the dog now associated the sound with food (his reward).

A similar phenomenon has occurred with humans and their smartphones. We interpret every new text or Facebook comment as a reward. Such messaging makes us feel appreciated or loved. Because we have learned to associate a cell phone ping with a reward, our brains now respond accordingly whenever we hear the sound of a new notification.

Our brain chemistry

When you hear your phone alert you to a new message, it causes a release of dopamine in your brain. This stimulates the reward center of your brain, creating an aroused, energized state. You become reflexively excited about the anticipated reward.

Simultaneously, this activity in your limbic system dulls the functioning of your prefrontal cortex—which is in charge of judgment and temporal reasoning. In effect, you become more likely to make decisions that create pleasure—rather than ones that keep you safe.

Cell phone alerts and driving

The above findings have serious implications on distracted driving. They show that if you are driving and your cell phone pings, your brain is effectively pushing you to pick up your phone. The majority of distracted driving accidents are the result of cell phone use.

Knowing that when it comes to cell phones, your brain can actually be working against your best interest, it’s worthwhile to take some basic precautions whenever you get behind the wheel. Set your phone to silent—or turn it off completely—until you reach your destination. It could turn out to be a life-saving decision.