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The power of the ping: why our phones make us act recklessly

We’ve reported in previous posts on the dangers of distracted driving. The most common—and most rapidly worsening—form of this infraction is distraction associated with cell phone use.

In this era of almost unlimited connectivity, we seem to have an insatiable urge to be digitally involved with each other. The moment our phone pings, our heart jumps. We have a burning desire to find out what new text came in or what new photo got posted on Instagram.

What is the cause of this reaction? Why are we so drawn to our phones? In this article, we examine the scientific rationale for our unusual obsession with our devices.

Our brain chemistry

When you hear that familiar ping on your phone, your brain has learned to associate this sound with the receipt of something positive, and there’s a sense of expectation and excitement. Your body responds by injecting you with a shot of dopamine, which activates the reward center of your brain.

When your reward center is triggered, you’re on a virtual high—similar to orgasm or intoxication—and your prefrontal cortex—the area of your brain in charge of judgement and reasoning—is compromised. In this state, you’re less likely to be able to make smart survival decisions. You’re considerably more likely to look at your phone—even if you’re driving under challenging conditions.

Just being aware that this phenomenon is taking place in your brain probably isn’t enough to stop you from acting recklessly. One solution is to remove the temptation altogether. The moment you get behind the wheel, turn your phone on silent, and don’t turn the volume back on until you reach your destination.

We all want to stay connected. But the expectation of immediacy is largely unnecessary. Seeing your Facebook invitation 20 minutes after it was sent isn’t going to kill you. Seeing it while you’re on the road, however, might.

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