This is your brain on notifications

You’re sitting at work, perhaps at a computer. Your mind is focused, concentrated on the task at hand. “Blip blip,” goes your phone. You take your eyes off your work, look at your phone. It’s “breaking news” from one of your news apps. You realize it’s not-so-breaking news, so you put your phone down and return to your work.

“Where was I?”

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You scan your computer to find your cursor. “Oh, that’s where I was.” Then you continue. Your mission is slowly getting accomplished.

“Blip, blip.”

You pick up your phone again. Someone likes your morning car selfie. It makes you feel good, someone validating how good you looked before going to work. You put your phone down again.

Back to work. You try to find where you had left off again. Numbers and stuff. Your Creative Cloud pops in telling you that you have six new updates. Ok, thanks, I’ll do that later. Then you realize an hour has gone by, and you haven’t gotten much work done. Every time you start, you get notified of something new. You attend to it, decide if you want to do something about it, then return to the task at hand. Sometimes you just ignore it. The more this happens, the less time you actually engage in your primary task.

This awareness of something new protects us. If we were hunting for food, our minds were on heightened alert for a predator to attack us. We automatically orient our attention to any change in our environment. Now I’m really going to get geeky.

Information processing models suggest that the human brain processes information like a computer. We survey the environment, take in relevant information (encoding), store some information in working memory (storage), and use our long-term memory (retrieval) as a map to make sense of our current environment. There are two types of encoding — automatic detection and controlled search. Controlled search is the traditional idea of “paying” attention to something. This requires more cognitive effort and involves more of your intentions.

Automatic detection, on the other hand, can involve signals that are well-learned and can compete for our attention beyond our conscious control. These signals could include hearing a siren, the voice of a parent, or hearing our name. Our response to a brief change in our current environment is called an orienting response. Our mind asks, “What is it?”

The orienting response is a key concept in processing information around us because it has the ability to control to which stimuli we attend. When an orienting response occurs, our mind calls for us to attend to the eliciting stimulus, such as a notification on our phone or computer. This places more demand on our cognitive load, particularly if we are engaged in a somewhat challenging mental task. The total amount of information you can process at a given moment is limited. We cannot attend to two different things at one time unless one task, such as driving, demands low cognitive resources.

Consider this — you can probably drive and listen to the radio if you are familiar with the driving route. But what happens when you get lost? You turn down the radio. So what happens when you are lost and suddenly you’re hit with a barrage of text messages?

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Your mind is heavily engaged in navigating your car, but your phone is now competing for your attention. Your cognitive system is now overloaded, and your ability to process information breaks down. Any new information, such as a stop sign or a car cutting you, might be ignored. Indeed, this can be dangerous.

You can also consider how notifications can interrupt someone else’s work. One study found that a cellphone ringing can disrupt others’ cognitive performance. If you’re in an important meeting with someone and your phone chirps a notification, it could interrupt another’s train of thought because it was unexpected. In other words, you might have become habituated to your own phone’s constant notifications, but other people might find it more disruptive.

The next time your phone notifies you of something, ask yourself, “Is this worth my attention — and everyone else’s?”

Written by

Former TV person, current college professor and media researcher. Ironman triathlete, meditation teacher and yoga instructor.

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