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Distracted driving: helping your brain make safe decisions

In a previous post, we discussed the rise in cell phone-related distracted driving accidents in recent years. Alaska has responded to the problem by passing firm legislation, which bans the use of electronic devices while driving and creates stiff penalties for violators.

Still, cell phones remain a major source of distraction for drivers. When you’re driving down the highway and hear the ping of your cell phone next to you—alerting you to a new message—it can be hard to resist. Your hand almost instinctively reaches over to check your phone. But why does this happen?

Brain training

Our smart phones serve as our link to all of our family and friends. We use them to access emails, texts and social media. When we receive a new message or notification through one of these mediums, it triggers a positive response in us—making us feel appreciated or loved.

Over time, our brains have learned to associate the ping of our phone—the alert that we have a new notification—as positive too. Therefore, when our cell phones ping, it creates the same response in our brains as actually reading the Facebook comment the ping is associated with.

The ping activates the reward center in our brains, causing a release of the feel-good chemical, dopamine. This makes us feel happy and excited. It also restricts the reasoning and decision-making functions in our prefrontal cortex. In this state, we’re more likely to engage in pleasure-seeking activities, even at the expense of our own safety.

Phone notifications while driving

Understanding how our brains respond to our phones has serious implications on our driving. Our subconscious, neurological response to our phone can compel us to reach for it when it chimes, even if intellectually, we know it’s dangerous.

To combat this response, turning your phone to silent—or off—whenever you drive can help to avoid unnecessary temptation. This simple change could have life-saving benefits.

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