Why Smartphones Dupe Our Brains

In the U.S., more than 8 people are killed and 1,161 injured every day in crashes reported to involve a distracted driver.1 Every year, almost a half million people are injured or killed in traffic accidents attributed to the combination of texting and driving. What is sad is that most or possibly all of these injuries and deaths could be avoided if people would just not text while they are behind the wheel. In a survey, 69% of U.S. drivers aged 18-64 admitted to using their cell phone while driving during the previous month, with 31% admitting to reading or sending text messages or email messages.2

Texting is so hazardous because it uses our visual, manual, and cognitive processes, and thus takes our attention off what is happening on the road. We are looking at the phone, using our hands to operate the phone, and thinking about the messages we are receiving and sending. Any or all of these behaviors, even if they take only a few seconds, could cause us to miss a potential upcoming hazard and could result in an accident. Even if the time taken away from watching the road is just five seconds, in that time period a vehicle traveling at 55 mph will go the length of a football field.

Everyone knows it is not smart to text and drive, and maybe not even to talk and drive, and yet many people still do it. What many do not know is how our brain can dupe us into thinking we can do several things at once with no consequences. We are so used to checking our phone numerous times per day that when it happens while driving, we may feel compelled to do it then, also. Researchers tell us that when we hear a notification sound on our phone informing us we have an email or text, our brain gets a hit of dopamine, a chemical that increases arousal and energizes the reward circuits in our brain. The dopamine reward centers in the brain are the same centers that have to do with pleasure from eating, from sex, and from drugs and alcohol.

Sometimes it is the expectation of a reward- that someone has texted you, or has tagged you on Facebook- that leads to a higher shot of dopamine than the reward itself. Another problem is that when the brain reward center is activated by that elevation in dopamine, it shuts down access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for most of our reasoning and decision-making. In addition, each time we look at social media or text or do anything else while behind the wheel and nothing bad happens, that reinforces our belief that we will be safe if we do it again.

David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry for the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, is the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.    In a YouTube video entitled, “Why am I addicted to my smartphone?” Dr. Greenfield explains the similarity between the reinforcement our brain gets from those notifications on our smart phones and the reinforcement people get from slot machines, and how both can result in somewhat of an addiction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXmOrfgaOKc  Dr. Greenfield estimates that 60-70% of people look at texts while driving fairly frequently.

In August, CNN featured an online series called, “DWD: Driving While Distracted,” which showed what researchers are learning about how the brain is affected by phone use while driving. They used the case of Laura Maurer to illustrate some of the dangers. She pulled over to text a client and then pulled back onto the road. When she got a notification alerting her to an incoming text, she couldn’t resist glancing at her phone, but when she did her car clipped the tractor that a 75-year-old farmer was driving. He was ejected from the seat of the tractor and died at the scene.

Maurer pled guilty to distracted driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. Maurer pled guilty to distracted driving and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. She served 14 of those days, but used the remainder of the sentence to complete 200 hours of community service, sharing her story and warning others about the dangers of using a phone while driving. She hopes her story helps people acknowledge that they may have done it themselves, with the result that they might think twice about doing it again.

Now there is technology to help us resist technology. Scott Tibbitts founded Groove3 to help end distracted driving.  You plug the Groove module into your car, sync your phone, and then Groove alerts your mobile phone provider to hold all texts and social media updates while you are driving, and prevents you from texting or posting on social media until your car is no longer moving.

Cognitive dissonance is defined by psychologists as a condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one’s beliefs and one’s actions. A prime example from our culture is knowing about the dangers of driving while distracted- whether from texting, checking social media, or just talking on a cell phone- but doing it anyway. Greenfield notes that, if our brain were to ask, “How important is this text? Is it worth killing somebody for?” we of course would say, “No.” But because of the influence of the dopamine, we are not as able to use good judgment, and so don’t process through the potential consequences. We just react.

If this article has not convinced you that you need to make sure you and those you love avoid texting while driving, please see the article cited in footnote 4 below; it will give you 25 more reasons!

  1. National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Distracted Driving: 2013 Data, in Traffic Safety Research Notes. DOT HS 812 132. April 2015, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Washington, D.C.
  2. http://www.personalinjurysandiego.org/topics/facts-about-texting-driving/
  3. http://katasi.com/
  4. http://distracteddriveraccidents.com/25-shocking-distracted-driving-statistics/