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Understanding brain chemistry can help avoid distracted driving

You may be sitting in the office, at home watching TV or wandering through the produce section at the grocery story. Wherever you are, the moment you hear that familiar chime of your cell phone notifications, you’re probably instinctively reaching for your phone.

We’ve become addicted to our smartphones. We crave the constant connectivity to our texts, emails and social media. It’s a way we connect with our family and friends, which can make us feel special and appreciated.

What we may not realize, however, is that our smartphones have pulled a sort of Pavlovian trick on us. They have trained us to associate the ping of an incoming notification with a reward.

How your smartphone affects your brain

When you hear your cell phone alert go off, it creates a sense of anticipation. You begin to wonder whether there’s new activity on your Twitter feed. Maybe your old high school crush has accepted your Facebook friend request.

During this time, the reward center of your brain becomes engaged. The feel-good chemical dopamine is released in your body, putting your emotions in a heightened state of arousal. When this happens, it can force your prefrontal cortex—the area of your brain in charge of temporal processing and decision-making—to shut down.

This makes you more likely to engage in activities that make you feel good—and less likely to avoid activities that are unsafe.

Cell phone notifications while driving

We’ve talked in previous posts about Florida’s distracted driving laws. Cell phone use while driving has led to a surge in distracted driving accidents in recent years.

Understanding how your brain reflexively responds each time your cell phone pings provides insight into driver behavior. If you hear an alert while driving, there are chemical reasons that can make checking your phone difficult to resist.

To help limit your chances of a distracted driving accident, it’s best to remove the cell phone temptation altogether. Whenever you get behind the wheel, turn your phone off—or else set it to silent. You’ll be doing a great service to yourself—and to everyone else on the road.

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