The neurobiology of change…or why my ‘smartphone’ is so smart.

Although we live in a modern age with amazing advances that allow us to lead lives that are more comfortable than those of our ancestors, our human anatomy and biology has barely changed in thousands of years.

This means that our basic responses are largely the same as those of our ancestors. We have three systems in our brains that are ‘primitive’ in the sense that they are independent of conscious control. These systems deal with stress; reward; and security. These have specific locations in the body and they have their own special chemicals that they release. Each of these systems plays a part in explaining why change is difficult for us to achieve.

How does that relate to our smartphones?

Stress

The first system is called the fight-flight system and it is beautifully designed to prepare our bodies to deal with danger. We respond to danger by either running away or fighting. Our body, fuelled by the chemical adrenaline, becomes faster and stronger (very useful when hunting wild animals). But, that system can still switch on very easily such as when we are late and caught in traffic- our heart rate quickens, our muscles tense, and we lose sight of the bigger picture, thinking only of how to fix the situation. You will recognise this as a stress response.

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to ignore your phone if it ‘pings’ with a message or notification? We are hardwired to respond to anything that we think of as a potential emergency, so we get stressed if we are prevented from responding. Designers of phones know this which is why the phone sounds and shows notifications in red (for danger, for attention).

Reward

Our brains and bodies are also hardwired for reward and this comes in the form of a chemical called dopamine. We get a ‘feelgood’ spike when it is released. So, going back to the phone, when we respond to the pinging of the phone, we calm down, stop releasing adrenaline, and instead release dopamine. Each time we use our phone and get what we want from it, we feel good. When we don’t get what we want (bad internet connection, website unavailable) we get very frustrated (because we are not getting our dopamine hit).

Security and connection

The last system of the brain which matters here is the security and emotional connection system which releases a cuddly hormone called oxytocin. This is released when we connect happily with other people, in person or online.

Taken together, it is easy to see how all three systems are constantly being switched on and off. Developers of smartphones understand this neurobiology well and have ensured that phones operate to maximise the utilisation of these systems.

When it comes to changing our behaviour, it is important to understand that we naturally seek to avoid stress, maximise reward, and extend connection with people, as much as possible. The success of the smartphone shows how vital our brain systems are, but it also show how easily we can become stuck in the same behaviours (playing online games for long periods, finding it hard to switch phones off, feeling rejected when we don’t get ‘likes’).

So, the reason it is hard to stop doing things that don’t support our wellbeing is because our brain systems are being activated to give us short term gain. For example, we can know that bingeing on food puts our health at risk and makes us feel bad about ourselves, but sugary and fatty foods quell anxiety and give comfort and reward.

If we want to achieve long-term change we have to be prepared to stop using our stress, reward and connection systems in the ways that we do. This requires conscious awareness and effort. Check out the post ‘How to make change happen and stick’ to get started on your changes.

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