What happens in our brain when we receive a notification, according to science

Some studies suggest that we "touch" our mobile devices about 2,600 times a day. Notifications, their way of stimulating us, are largely to blame for this.

The psychological and physiological mechanism behind the design of these flashing signals is the same one that our brain uses in the case of some addictive substances. Can we call ourselves "addicts" to notifications?

Pavlov's theory of the 21st century

In 1901, Iván Petróvich Pávlov began working on the hypothesis that almost everyone has heard of today: "Law of conditional reflection". To do this, in short, he spent several years testing various stimuli, positive and negative, with dogs. The famous "Pavlov's dogs" reacted, as the physiologist expected, to the sound of a bell or a metronome as if it were food.

In other words, a stimulus is capable of unleashing a response that, in principle, has nothing to do with it. The reason is the (classic) conditioning, that is, the association of this stimulus, such as the bell of hours, with the fact that the poor dog was going to be given food. If Pavlov lived in these times, he would be happy to see that his law is being fulfilled right under his nose.

If we change the sound of the bell (real) for that of the notifications, we will see that the stimulus awakens in us an answer: the need to look at the phone. As we will now see, it is a purely classical conditioning response. We associate the sound or the icon with an (usually positive) experience that has nothing to do with the sound itself or the image. At least not always. But that does not prevent it from triggering a social interaction and its consequences on us.

A sound and an icon can mean anything, but a sound that we relate to a message from our friends, or an icon that indicates that someone liked a photo, are conditioned stimuli that incite us to feel something. This is where the secret is. No, we are not talking about conditioning itself. This is only the first part. The real crux The question is the answer that this conditioning causes.

Notifications and cocaine use the same mechanism

Have you ever noticed that slight feeling of anxiety or discomfort when you know that you have left the phone somewhere? It is normal. In fact, we could say that it is the "monkey", in a certain sense. Saying notifications are an addiction is not appropriate. An addiction is a very serious and very determined thing. However, what we can say is that they have a certain relationship.

This is none other than our reward system. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that plays a fundamental role in behavior. Normally, we release it when we eat something pleasant, we have a satisfactory experience or we exercise, among other things, which include taking some types of drugs. Its role is to activate the reward system so that we repeat a behavior, in principle, beneficial to us.

There are four major dopaminergic pathways (which transmit dopamine) in our brain: the mesocortical, the nigrostriatal, the mesolimbic, and the tuberoinfundibular. Of these, the first three are directly related to the reward we were talking about, so that carrying out certain actions triggers, through these pathways, a pleasant and satisfactory stimulus: they make us happy. This mechanism is what our brain uses to reinforce behavior.

When a substance or action abuses these pathways, such as drug, gambling, or other factors, we can fall into addiction. We are not going to go into details about this, but we will say that in the absence of this stimulus (or the awareness that we will not have it), our brain reveals itself, creating a certain feeling of anxiety. In the same way, our brain feels "calmer" when receiving the stimulus and knowing that it is available. It is part of the learning mechanism, to some extent deformed by an external stimulus. This effect has been proven several times on mobiles, as described in this study by the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Bergen.

We are social beasts

We have already seen that it is the reward, mediated by the dopaminergic pathways and activated by the stimulus, that is why the notifications "hook us". But what is it that actually produces the reward? What have we associated with the stimulus so that we like so much to give to the mobile? Primates, in general, we are animals with a great background Social. The reason for this, and probably also the consequence, is the reward system we were talking about.

Indeed, this is activated by the dopaminergic pathways in the face of social interaction. As we can see in this study from Philipps University, Marburg, the relationship between human beings triggers this type of response: a smile, a caress, approval or kind words are enough to awaken the reward and, therefore, promote the behavior that has generated said stimulus. Evolutionary researchers explain this relationship as a necessary and positive social mechanism.

In this way, we already have the complete picture. Notifications are a conditioned stimulus that we associate with a social interaction that produces pleasure and reward, which is mediated by our dopaminergic pathways. And what about unsatisfactory or negative interactions? Although things get a little complicated, they also fit into this painting that we were painting. First, negative interactions can elicit a negative response.

Likewise, interactions that produce nothing can cause us to be indifferent. Normally these end up disappearing from our screen, although now we will talk about that. Finally, in notifications we sometimes experience a reward situation very similar to what happens with slot machines, and which is known as a variable reward system. This has proven to be tremendously effective in our brains.

The secret of good notification

To finish adding complexity to this picture, many marketing and advertising specialists, as well as sociologists and psychologists, are trying to fill in the "gaps" that are missing in the knowledge we have about notifications. Although the mechanism seems very clear, the truth is that the interactions and usability of the devices belong to a much higher level than the physiological one: the ethological or behavioral level. The objective is to understand how it works at street level to make them more efficient.

Twitter design researcher Ximena Vengoechea believes that good notification hooks by taking advantage of two mechanisms, one internal and one external, and their perfect synchronization. The internal mechanism would be emotional, while the external, according to Vengoechea, would be the one that provides information on what to do. Both end up waking up the reward system with different intensity. For the researcher, the combination is what allows a notification to be "hooked" to the user.

To do this, the devices play with the mechanism we were talking about, activating it at various levels that involve social interaction with visual stimuli, gamification and actions. To further enhance it, according to the researcher, other aspects come together such as the perfect moment, which synchronizes the need with the action, the curiosity that encourages interaction, and the design, which make them more attractive of course.

The result is that an action derived from a stimulus becomes a habit. We already have the almost perfect mix. However, it must be said that this last section enters the delicate world of the social and behavioral sciences. In reality, it is very difficult to obtain concrete results determined by populations with such different experiences. And even so, eppur si muoveAs Galileo said (or so the legend has it): notifications, with more or less science, work.

Images | Wikimedia, Unsplash

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