If you are driving while using the cell phone, your performance is that of a drunk….even if yoiu are using hands free….
By Jon Hamilton
National Public Radio
Drivers seem pretty comfortable chatting on their cell phones while navigating the streets. But brain researchers say it’s a terrible idea, 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.
Above: “If you’re driving while cell-phoning, then your performance is going to be as poor as if you were legally drunk,” says professor David Meyer. iStockphoto.com
“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 Phones
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. Just says driving becomes automatic.
“You find yourself arriving at some destination and not remembering much about the trip. I sometimes find myself passing a car without remembering that I decided to pass. So I don’t know much about my own (automatic) driving,” Just says.
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? To answer that question, we could have tested the limits of an actual driver in actual traffic. That seemed like a bad idea. So we came up with a demonstration that’s a bit more refined.
Pushing The Brain — Concerts And Conversation
We brought a professional pianist into the studios here at NPR. A musician like Jacob Frasch has a lot in common with an experienced driver. Both can do a complex task that has become automatic while carrying on a simple conversation.
For over an hour, we tasked Frasch with playing a range of pieces, some he knew and some he had to sight-read. While he was playing, we asked him to multitask. Sometimes the additional work was simple. For instance, Frasch has no trouble talking about his childhood while playing a Bach minuet. But when the challenges took more brain power, it was tougher for Frasch to answer questions and play the piano at the same time.
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