Most people understand that texting, checking social media or using phone apps while driving is dangerous. Yet many of us find ourselves doing it, whether we admit it or not. Why do we feel compelled to respond to every notification ping from our phones?
As it turns out, science can help to explain our temporary madness. It all has to do with brain chemistry, specifically the rush of pleasure-causing dopamine.
Basically, when we hear a notification on our smartphones, we get a rush of dopamine, which engages the reward-seeking circuitry in our brains. Then the expectation of that reward, discovering who is texting or who tagged you on social media, can lead to a second burst of dopamine.
In this elevated state, the brain also does something else: it shuts down the prefrontal cortex. These are the parts of our brains that are responsible for most of our judgment and reasoning.
“The parts of the brain that say, ‘OK, how important is this text? Is this text worth dying for? Is this text worth killing somebody else for?’ ” David Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, explained in an article on this topic for CNN. “The answer, of course, logically, would be ‘no,’ but if you have less access to that part of your brain when you’re in this state, which seems to be the case, then you’re not really using your judgment.”
The result? We reach for that phone despite the dangerous risks.
Technology is currently being developed that will help curb our desire to answer the pings. This includes Groove, a technology that automatically holds all texts and other phone notifications and prevents you from posting or texting until the car is no longer in motion.
And, of course, the low-tech solution is to put your phone on silent and keep it out of your reach while driving. To do this, as we have discovered, we have to fight with our very own biochemistry.