Texting while driving triggers a drug-like brain boost

Tuesday July 3, 2018

Many drivers – adults as well as teens — find it impossible to ignore an incoming text message. Intellectually, they know it can wait. They know that texting while driving is illegal and dangerous. Yet they do it anyway.

An expert on technology addictions explains that texting releases dopamine, the same brain chemical triggered by eating, having sex, playing video games and other pleasures. The compulsion to answer the “ping” – and get that dopamine fix – overrides drivers’ better judgment. Sometimes with tragic results.

Is texting while driving an addiction?

David Greenfeld is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and founder of the Center for Internet And Technology Addiction. He believes that texting and smartphone apps like SnapChat are dangerously addictive because of how our brains work.

An incoming text triggers a teaser shot of dopamine, the same chemical associated with the “high” from drugs, alcohol and gambling. Drivers anticipate the rush they will get from the text message and want to keep the good feelings coming. The problem is that stimulating the dopamine receptors suppresses the “logic board” part of the brain that tells us that texting while driving is a bad idea.

Public safety campaigns aren’t working

In a 2013 survey sponsored by AT&T, nearly 100 percent of adults said they know texting and driving is wrong, yet 50 percent admitted they do it. Five years later, the problem is just as rampant, despite new laws, stiffer penalties and widely publicized fatalities.

Researchers and entrepreneurs are searching for workarounds to fool or override the brain to help drivers refrain from texting behind the wheel.

  • Education of young drivers is important. Habits are easier to break before they become full-blown addictions.
  • Technology is available to turn off the incoming “pings” or disable social media apps altogether while the car is in motion.
  • Drivers need to support each other through no-texting pledges and maybe “Texters Anonymous” groups for those who struggle with the compulsion to text and drive.

Have you given up texting while driving?

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