Multi-Tasking In The Car - A Myth

23 June 2016 - By Eugene Herbert

Drivers seem pretty
comfortable lighting up a smoke, changing  stations on the radio or
chatting on their cell phones while navigating the streets. But brain
researchers say it's a terrible idea to do more than one thing at a time
particularly using a cell, even with a hands-free device.

"If you're driving
while cell-phoning, then your performance is going to be as poor as if you were
legally drunk," says David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University
of Michigan.

"If you test
people while they're texting or talking on the phone, they will actually miss a
lot of things that are in their visual periphery," says Earl Miller, a
neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Driving requires a
surprising amount of brain power. Out on the road, we have to process huge
amounts of visual information, predict the actions of other drivers and
coordinate precise movements of our hands and feet.

Even when using a
hands-free device, scientists have found that talking on the phone distracts us
to the point where we devote less brain power to focusing on the road.

Drivers' Brains on Cell

Marcel Just, a
neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, says that's why people learning
to drive don't do anything else.

"Novice drivers
turn off the radio, they ask you not to talk to them. They need all the brain
participation they can get for the driving," Just says.

But the level of focus
required changes with experience. Over time, the brain rewires itself to do the
tasks involved in driving. So when our eyes see a red light, our foot hits the
brake, with no conscious thought involved. Driving becomes automatic.

You may even find
yourself arriving at some destination and not remembering much about the trip.
Even sometimes find one self-passing a car without remembering that one had
decided to pass.  That’s called driving on Autopilot

Scientists call this
phenomenon "automaticity." It lets us do one thing while focusing on
something else. In other words, learning to do one task automatically helps us
to multitask.

If the brain is so good
at this, why not chat on the cell phone while driving? Experts came up with a
demonstration that's a bit more refined.

Pushing the Brain —
Concerts and Conversation

A professional pianist
was brought into a special studio. For over an hour, the musician was tasked
with playing a range of pieces, some he knew and some he had to sight-read.
While he was playing, he was asked to multitask. Sometimes the additional work
was simple. But when the challenges took more brain power, it was tougher for
the musician to answer questions and play the piano at the same time.

There's a lot going on
in the pianist's brain. Several circuits are busy decoding and producing
language. And that's only the beginning.

There's a network of
areas dealing with the music. Certainly, auditory cortex — again, very
importantly, motor control of his hands and fingers while he's playing...

Neuroscience studies
using brain scans have shown that the brain struggles with paying attention to
sights and sounds simultaneously. When the brain starts working on a visual
task, its auditory parts show decreased activity, and vice versa.

Brain Overload,
Something's Gotta Give

A multitasking driver
might have hit something else. The musician, who was already working hard to
follow the music, simply couldn't handle something else that required real

It's like driving on an
unfamiliar road and getting a cell phone call from an angry spouse. You may not
notice that stopped  car up ahead.

In fact, driver
inattention is involved in about 80 percent of crashes, according to a 2006
study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The 100-Car
Naturalistic Driving Study found the most common distraction for drivers was
use of cell phones — with the number of crashes attributable to dialling nearly
identical to the number associated with talking or listening.

What was learned from
the experiment was that multi-tasking, while thought to be possible by many is
in reality not realistic. The brain must switch modes. Switching modes takes
time — maybe only a quarter of a second. But on a highway that means you've
gone an extra 20 meters before you hit the brake.

So next time you feel
tempted to try and engage with your phone while driving, remember that people –
far cleverer than you or I have proved it doesn’t work – the infographic below
shows this clearly.

Till next time – Don’t
take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, if fact - Just Drive!

Eugene Herbert

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