Can Smartphones Interrupt Brain Chemistry?

We are constantly interrupted by our devices – from alerts to emails to messages – the notifications come morning, noon and night.  Scott Bea, PsyD, explains why, when we’re constantly interrupted, it can create a different chemistry in our brains.

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CLEVELAND – We are constantly interrupted by our devices – from alerts to emails to messages – the notifications come morning, noon and night.

And while we might think the interruptions are necessary to keep us informed, what do all these notices do to us?

According to Scott Bea, PsyD, of Cleveland Clinic, when we’re constantly interrupted, it can create a different chemistry in our brains.

“There’s this phenomenon called ‘switch cost’ that occurs when there’s an interruption – we switch away from the task that we’re on and then we have to come on back,” he said. “We think it interrupts our efficiency with our brains by about 40 percent.”

Dr. Bea said technology has put our brains on high alert most of the time as we wait for the next notification.

And when it happens, we get little surges of the stress hormone – cortisol. Our heart rate increases, we get sweaty hands and our muscles get a little tight.

If by chance, we are unable to check our phones immediately, Dr. Bea said those feelings of anxiety can last until we’re able to look at our phones.

He said the technology can also influence our brains in the way of addiction.

When we gratify the urge to check the alert, we ‘reward’ our brain, and can become addicted to the reward, so that we keep repeating the behavior.

“Getting off these things is like getting off anything else that has an addictive component – we’re actually going to feel bad for a little while,” said Dr. Bea. “Our brains aren’t going to get those little dopamine surges or rewards and we might go through a period of loss, or even a little bit of withdrawal.”

Dr. Bea said keeping our productivity from becoming a victim of our phones takes discipline.

And while it’s important to be able to reduce the level of arousal that our phones produce, it involves creating a new habit, which can take time.

“Initially when you start trying to stay away from the technology, or confine it, you’ll be a little uncomfortable – you’ll have that fear of missing out or a little anxiety that something’s getting past you –but, with practice, your brain can get used to it,” said Dr. Bea.

Dr. Bea said it’s especially important to be able to disconnect from our work phones when possible, in order to allow our brains to distinguish between work and home and keep stress levels to a minimum.