The reason talking on a cell phone makes drivers less safe may be that the brain cant simultaneously give full attention to both the visual task of driving and the auditory task of listening, a study by a Johns Hopkins University psychologist suggests.
The study, published in a recent issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, reinforces earlier behavioral research on the danger of mixing mobile phones and motoring.
Our research helps explain why talking on a cell phone can impair driving performance, even when the driver is using a hands-free device, said Steven Yantis, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the universitys Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
The reason? he said. Directing attention to listening effectively turns down the volume on input to the visual parts of the brain. The evidence we have right now strongly suggests that attention is strictly limited - a zero-sum game. When attention is deployed to one modality - say, in this case, talking on a cell phone - it necessarily extracts a cost on another modality - in this case, the visual task of driving.
Yantiss chief collaborator on this research project was Sarah Shomstein, who was a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins. Shomstein is now a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie-Mellon University.
Though the results of Yantis research can be applied to the real world problem of drivers and their cell phones, that was not directly what the professor and his team studied. Instead, healthy young adults ages 19 to 35 were brought into a neuroimaging lab and asked to view a computer display while listening to voices over headphones. They watched a rapidly changing display of multiple letters and digits, while listening to three voices speaking letters and digits at the same time. The purpose was to simulate the cluttered visual and auditory input people deal with every day.
To learn more about this, read the press release.
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