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June 22, 2005

Talking, Driving Overwhelm Puny Human Brain



Courtesy of TechWeb News

Yakking on a cell phone while driving is dangerous because the brain can't handle both tasks, researchers at John Hopkins University said Tuesday.

Imaging tests run at the University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences found that subjects submitted to both audio and video distractions showed decreased activity in, say, the auditory section of the brain while focusing on visual tasks, and vice versa.

"Directing attention to listening effectively 'turns down the volume' on input to the visual parts of the brain," said Steven Yantis, a professor in the department and the leader of the research team, in a statement. "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."

Although Yantis and his co-collaborator Sarah Shomstein, now at Carnegie-Mellon University, weren't investigating cell phone use per se -- the research was funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse -- the results are a confirmation of earlier studies done on the danger of mixing driving and calling.

"Our research helps explain why talking on a cell phone can impair driving performance, even when the driver is using a hands-free device," Yantis said.

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