How Constant Onslaught of Phone Notifications Is Changing Your Brain

We're all guilty of it - checking our phones when we shouldn't be. But did you know that phone notifications are actually messing with your brain?

Receiving phone notifications can be both thrilling and frustrating. When you receive them, the constant eagerness to check them out immediately persists in the back of your mind. People on average receive about 60 and 80 daily notifications, and some may get as many as 200. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these phone notifications are having adverse effects on our brains

What the latest research shows

Scientists have shown that getting seemingly endless dings and buzzes can take a major toll on our wellbeing. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a Prof and licensed psychologist at Columbia University in New York City, explained that receiving phone notifications “sends our brain into hyperdrive, prompting worry and anxiety, and at the very least, emotional arousal, which is designed to defend us from attackers, not the phone.” He continued, “The prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-level cognitive functions is turned off by phone notifications or simply the anticipation of them. Thereafter, it forces the brain to send emergency signals to the body.” 

The body experiences a surge every time we receive a notification, but it isn’t always a nice one. Anxiety and despair have been linked to phone notifications, and they may even induce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 


Loads of interruptions due to incessant urge to check your notifications

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While you may not believe that phone notifications are dangerous or stressful, it may be surprised at how strongly you feel compelled to check your phone alerts as soon as you receive them. “Imagine you’re driving and you get a text from your significant other, maybe during the time, you’re in the middle of a disagreement or a crisis: the urge to look at the phone and read the text will definitely be overwhelming,” says Dr. Hafeez. He goes on to say, 

“You may have sweaty palms, experience a pounding heart, and your whole body may feel like it’s on fire, since you’re not sure of the content of the text, probably it would say, ‘we should visit a divorce lawyer,’ or “Sweetie, get some vegetables on your way home.” The phone notifications can interrupt your driving, raising risks in our lives.

Similarly, frequent phone interruptions add to our cognitive load or the amount of data our memory function processes. We only have enough brain capacity, and switching between tasks can fatigue us, impair emotional regulation, and make us more prone to distractions. Consequently, notifications can result in slower and poorer quality work performance. Some scientists think that the goals of a given task can even “decay from memory” when we’re interrupted.


The research

Mosi Rosenboim, a behavioral economist at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, divided 188 undergraduate students into groups that received texts every minute, every three minutes, or none as they completed a questionnaire. The research study was published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics

According to their responses, people who got more frequent messages had higher levels of impulsivity, inattention, and stress than the other groups. Meanwhile, SMS recipients reacted more carefully to hypothetical financial situations, such as the maximum amount they’d pay for a lottery ticket depending on their chances of winning. 

Research results

Rosenboim’s findings and other research in the field imply that phone alerts can generate increased stress and impulsive behavior, as well as risk-averse long-term decisions.


Most people “fear making decisions that involve risk and uncertainty because they lack the cognitive resources needed to analyze the significance of this risk” when they’re bombarded with technology. Making long-term investments, according to Rosenbaum, necessitates embracing potential risks. It’s usually preferable to switch on “Do Not Disturb” when you’re house looking or just going out for a shopping spree. 

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Why do we anticipate notifications?

Why do we appreciate receiving these phone notifications so much if they are stressful and dangerous? According to Dr. Hafeez, when we text or receive phone notifications, a reward center is engaged. It’s fine to check your phone and scroll through social media, but understanding how it affects your brain is crucial to learning to set limits for yourself. Regardless of their concerns, Dr. Hafeez believes that each person should have the freedom and self-control to check whatever alerts they wish. You can take minor but in the end effective measures to get your alerts under control and quiet your phone (and your thoughts) if you’re seeking a method to give your brain a halt.

While you may not want to turn off phone calls or messages,” Dr. Hafeez recommends, you can set a ‘Do Not Disturb’ for everyone or allow specific people to get through. This way, you know that specific loved ones can contact you, but you’re not being tugged in too many places while sleeping, eating, or working.”


Countering the effects of notifications

Amidst revelations that cell phone notifications can wreak havoc on our brains, scientists have sought ways to counteract these effects. One possible solution is to schedule notifications into batches that arrive at certain times of the day. In a report published in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior” in 2019, Kostadin Kushlev, a behavioral scientist at Georgetown University, made a compelling argument for notification batching.

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Researchers randomly assigned 237 Indian respondents to one of three groups: those who received all of their alerts three times a day, hourly, or none. The three-times-a-day group reported feeling more productive, alert, in a better mood, and having more control over their phones. At the same time, the notification-free subjects experienced more anxiety and fear of missing out or FOMO.

Finding opportune moments

Everything is better in moderation. Notwithstanding the efforts we take to address smartphone-induced insanity, Kushlev believes it is up to social media businesses to make the structural adjustments that will make these disruptions less severe. But doing so would go against their strategy of maximizing our attention for their profit. Take a break if you feel like your phone notifications may be stressing you out or overwhelming you. Your brain will thank you for it and you will feel better in the long run.


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