We can't seem to stop talking, texting, emailing, etc., while we drive. When you hear that email ding, it's a lot like Pavlov's dogs hearing a bell. You start to anticipate (if not salivate for) the reward.But it's not just anticipation. As it turns out, hearing the ding makes your brain release a "dopamine squirt" that gets you excited.
Here's another example: if you take a sugar pill that you believe to be medicine, you often feel better. Again, it's more than a feeling: Your body actually releases endorphins when you take a placebo.
If these findings excite you, calm down.
Every mental process is represented in the brain. A placebo can't make you feel better without something happening in the brain--neither can the ding of a text message--because the brain is where feelings happen.
A column in The Guardian this week defended reading because "Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways." Of course it does!
Neuroscience is about what happened in the brain. For most of us, what happened is hard to interpret--for example, what's the difference between dopamine and serotonin? Or the hippocampus and the amygdala? Most of us don't know. The take home message is often: "Wow, something happened in the brain!" (Read The Onion's take on the matter here and here.)
Mental processes are interesting in their own right. We crash our cars because we feel like checking our email behind the wheel. That feeling is important, regardless of how the brain does its magic. Yet in our society, biological processes are more convincing than psychological processes. For example, people rate psychological science as more convincing if they are shown a picture of a brain scan, even if the scan is totally irrelevant (see Beck, 2010).
Don't be convinced about a mental process just because it's rooted in the brain. If you read about an effective way to get kids to pay attention in school, then it's effective, period. If there's a measurable difference in brain activity, the nature of the difference is interesting. But saying, "The brain does that?!" Of course it does.