You're driving down the freeway to work. It's rush hour, making traffic unpredictable and requiring you to concentrate harder. On top of that, you haven't had your morning coffee yet, and you're aware that you're not as alert as you should be.
But suddenly something happens, which causes these safety concerns to disintegrate from your mind: you hear that alluring ping of an incoming message on your phone. You reach into your pocket to take a quick glance at your notifications. At this precise moment, the car in front of you slams on the brakes, and you rear-end them.
You curse yourself for your distractibility. You should have known better. What compelled you to check your phone while you were driving?
The brain chemistry behind the ping
Incoming notifications on our phones--whether they signal a text, email or tag in social media--trigger a release of dopamine in our bodies, which stimulates the reward center of our brains. Because of this association, we're essentially trained to feel excited and energized whenever our phone pings.
When the reward center is activated, it inhibits function in the prefrontal cortex--the area of the brain in charge of reasoning and decision making. This means that although--in a calm state--we'd be capable of judging certain activities to be dangerous, in this heightened state, that logic goes out the window. Instead, we're drawn to do the activities we associate with feeling good.
We've posted previously about the dangers of distracted driving. This study suggests that laws banning cell phone use while driving are insufficient to curb this behavior. Instead, consider putting your phone on silent when you get behind the wheel--and reactivate your notification alerts once you reach your destination.