Smartphones have drastically changed how we—as a society—interact with each other. The majority of us rely on our phones as our primary form of communication. Many of us maintain entire relationships through social media and text.

Smartphone addiction is a known problem—for children and adults alike. You may be commuting home after a long day at work. You’re focused on the gridlock in front of you. Yet the second you hear your phone alert you to a new text, you may find yourself instinctively reaching over to pick up your phone and see what you’re missing.

Intellectually, you may realize that checking your phone while driving is unsafe. But why is it so difficult to resist? The answer has to do with our neurological conditioning.

Your brain on tweets

You may think you have control over your phone. But on a subconscious, reflexive level, your phone is actually conditioning you for certain responses.

Texts, emails or social media notifications all represent positive forms of feedback. Messages from your friends usually make you feel good—so your brain interprets them as rewards.

When you hear your phone ping, alerting you to a new message, you associate that sound with the message itself—i.e., your reward. Thus, your brain has become trained to respond to the alert on your phone as the reward itself.

Your brain reacts by releasing a shot of dopamine, causing you to feel excited. This feel-good chemical reaction overrides the input from your prefrontal cortex—the area of your brain in charge of judgement and reasoning. In this state, you’re far more likely to engage in reward-seeking behavior than in safe, responsible behavior.

Limiting your risk

Knowing the power that your phone has over your self-preservation instincts, it’s important to avoid unnecessary temptation when you’re in critical situations—such as driving a two-ton vehicle down the freeway during rush hour. It’s advisable to turn your phone off—or set it to silent—whenever you get behind the wheel. This simple step can have a profound impact on the safety of yourself—and others—on the road.