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The Age of Notifications and Attention Deficits

by Shreya Dalela May 3, 2017

I admit it. I am addicted to notifications.

But really, who isn’t?

Every single social media network’s growth and revenue depends on how frequently YOU check the screen. They hire neuroscientists and psychologists to understand our minds better so that the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ can be used to their advantage.

Autoplay videos, disappearing stories, they are all programmed to achieve the same goal — that you either don’t leave or you keep coming back to it as many times as possible.

And it’s definitely working to their advantage. You see, Facebook charges advertisers for every single impression that their ad receives. So even if you are mindlessly scrolling through your feed 10 times a day, not even clicking on anything, you are still helping Facebook mint money.

Well, great deal for them. But why am I talking about it?

Because in doing so, in making every single social media channel addictive, there is one thing that is going horribly wrong. And, it’s surprising that not many are even talking about it.

Your brain is stuck in an endless loop.

In the Industrial Age, Thomas Edison famously said, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent.” In the Internet Age, more and more companies live by the mantra “create an obsession, then exploit it.”

What do you do when you are idle? Check phone. What do you do when you are feeling anxious? Check phone. What do you do when you wake up in the morning? Check phone. What do you do when you can’t fall asleep? Check phone. What do you do when you feel awkward? Check phone. (Okay, the last one really helps sometimes!)

In this article, I am talking about the negative impact that all of this is creating on your mental health. But this not to say that I wish to discount upon the positive impact that social media/internet has created in bringing the world closer, in making it easier to find the best of people and to make your creations reach out to much wider audience than it was possible in the earlier times.

The thing is that excess of every single thing is bad. We all know that. But fighting addiction and excess of something that is essentially designed for that very purpose takes a hell lot of discipline.

So unless we realise how badly that discipline is needed, we are not going to take any action towards building that. Right?

These are the 5 things that notifications are doing to your brain that you should really care about:

1. Dopamine loops

Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, seeking and reward.

Much of what we do online releases dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centres, resulting in obsessive pleasure-seeking behavior. It is similar to the effect of certain drugs.

Now the thing with this pleasure seeking mechanism is that over a period of time, the brain adapts in a way that actually makes the sought-after substance or activity less pleasurable.

All you are left with then is a feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of it which can only be satiated with something more rewarding. That means you could endlessly keep responding to notifications, instant messages and consuming content online but NEVER actually feel good about it.

Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text. These are dopamine loops. — Psychology Today


2. Addiction to instant gratification

Everything we want is a click away. While that is good, do you realise how often we tend to start expecting similar instant gratification in other aspects of our lives?

“Many young professionals today want their careers to be on steroids. They crave the gratification of a pay raise or promotion every few months, and when they don’t get the expected rewards, they feel frustrated and sometimes even quit their jobs. Such behavior is creating retention headaches for some employers and could make impatient, job-hopping millennials unappealing to companies.” — Ronald Alsop, reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal.

Similarly, we have little patience in our relationships or in anything else. We want everything, just when we want it, just the way we want it.

And to be honest, that is making us act a little bit crazy.

3. Information excess and exhaustion

Every day, we are consuming information that we don’t even need. Information that doesn’t even entertain us or benefit us. Mindless, badly-written click-bait articles flood our timeline. The problem is more about ‘what’ we are consuming than ‘how-often’.

Dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. So most of the content that you see is aimed towards capturing your attention but not necessarily meant to benefit you in any way.

All of this excessive information hurts our brain’s functioning.

Psychological research suggests that the brain is predisposed to attend to negative information. When media content makes us feel angry, scared or sad, we orient toward the disturbing story to make sure we know how to protect ourselves. (It’s the ancient fight-or-flight response of our brain)

And we keep picking up so many emotions, so many stories, so many feelings from everything that we consume that we often end up feeling a certain emotion not quite knowing what triggered it. All of this information is confusing our minds.

Information Overload, or “Information Fatigue Syndrome (IFS),” occurs when we over-expose ourselves to media, technology and information. Our brains have trouble keeping up with everything that we are feeding them. We end up having headaches and being exhausted and end up making mistakes and wrong decisions. The main point is, when exposed to too much information and technology, we tend to shut down.- Alvin Toffler, Author Future Shock.

4. Shorter attention spans

Patience was long considered a virtue, but it seems more like an anachronism today.

The Internet essentially promises two things: instant gratification and an endless, varied, hyper-stimulating buffet of entertainment and information options. If you don’t like one thing within the first five seconds, you (can) jump to something else. The Internet, it turns out, incentivises the exact types of behavior and thought processes that characterises ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Our attention spans have greatly reduced. We can hardly give undivided attention to anything.

The most disturbing thing is that most people hardly listen at all these days. They are always distracted by their phone or their thoughts. Most people have attention span of less than a few minutes.

We should at least be capable of giving undivided attention to the presence of another human being and to real human conversations.

5. Context switching

Constant stimulation of the dopamine system can be exhausting. And the constant switching of attention makes it hard to get anything accomplished.

For instance, say you were working on an important document and you got interrupted by a notification from a colleague about something else that needed your attention so you shifted to that. Next, you got a message from a friend so you decided to spend a few minutes chatting about something.

While it seems like a nice feeling to be anywhere and everywhere, this kind of frequent context switching is bad as there is a cost associated with every notification that you mindlessly respond to.

That’s because there are different areas of our brain that are activated in response to the notification depending on what the response to that notification demands from us. This causes you to spend a lot more mental energy than required.


In times when social media companies/game developers are working towards creating compulsive behavior and then exploiting it to their advantage, the ability to control and discipline your mind is everything.

Having understood that, I began to read extensively and started understanding how some of the best professional networkers and other successful people manage their notifications, time spent on social media and online interactions.

This article originally appeared on The Coffeelicious and is republished here with permission.

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