Email alerts trigger heightened brain responses, new study shows

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The sound of email alerts triggers heightened responses in the brain and could be damaging to work-life balance, psychologists have discovered. 

A study showed common messaging alerts do elicit brain responses that might be unique to sounds that have meaning and significance.

Professor Maria Uther, of the department of Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton teamed up with former colleagues at the University of Winchester to investigate the effect of email messaging on the brain.

The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology  suggests that the brain may be ‘tuning in’ to email alerts in a way that is different to how it responds to other auditory sounds. This brain response may contribute to over-involvement with work, potentially harming people’s work-life balance.

Professor Uther, Head of the University of Wolverhampton's Psychology Research Centre, said hyper vigilance in relation to email alerts could culminate in long-term stress and contribute to wellbeing and productivity issues.

She said: "These are preliminary findings and it is not to say that the brain changes are at all irreversible. But it is indicative of the impact that modern technology may be having on the brain.

"Possible simple solutions for reducing the increased attention might be for example, to switch our alerts off – and this would be the focus of further research."

The team studied two common messaging alerts – an Outlook email sound and Android mobile phone sound.

They found that the brain shows evidence of heightened attention to the Outlook email sounds compared to the mobile phone sound. This was despite the fact that the Outlook sound was less physically distinguishable than the mobile phone sound.

The study also showed that people who respond more quickly to the email alerts were more involved with their jobs.

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