All day, everyday we are inundated with notifications from our devices. Our smartphones ring, buzz, light up, connecting us to the rest of the world in real time. But what are the effects of our mobile devices on our brains?
On a biological level, our bodies have a different opinion. We are simply not made to live like this. These constant warnings put our stress hormones on high alert, triggering our fight or flight response: our heartbeats accelerate, our breathing stretches, our sweat glands open and our muscles contract. This answer is – normally – intended to allow us to overcome a danger, and not to answer a call or a message.
According to endocrinologist Robert Lustig, the notifications of our phones condition our brains to be in an almost constant state of stress and fear. Such a condition means that the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that normally processes some of our highest cognitive functioning, is completely out of order. Every time we change tasks, we release a dose of cortisol, the stress hormone. Switching puts our thoughtful and reasoned prefrontal cortex to sleep and stimulates dopamine, a chemical released in the brain by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other nerve cells. “You end up doing stupid things,” says the researcher. “And those stupid things tend to get you into trouble.”
In addition, your brain can only do one thing at a time. Scientists have known for years what many of us do not want to admit: humans can not really perform multiple tasks at the same time. This is true for almost all of us, about 97.5% of the population. You could drive and call at the same time, but it’s clear that you simply can not do it without compromising your abilities. A mere mortal only fully focuses on one thing at a time.
This means that every time we pause to respond to a new notification, we are interrupted. We pay a price: what is called a “switching cost”. Sometimes switching from one task to another only costs us a few tenths of a second, but during a day of switching between ideas, conversations and transactions on a phone or computer, our switching costs accumulate and make us more prone to errors.
It has also been proven that checking Facebook notifications makes young adults depressed. Researchers who have studied the emotional well-being of students find a direct link: the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. And this obviously does not apply only to Facebook, but to the Internet in general. We must have everything, we must have more, and we must have it now. If these desires are not satisfied, then we become depressed.