RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. If you're in your car and maybe thinking about making a phone call...
MONTAGNE: Hold on a minute, long enough at least for these experts to remind you that what you are about to do is a bad idea.
Dr. DAVID MEYER (Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan): If you're driving while cell phoning, then your performance is going to be as poor as if you were legally drunk.
Dr. EARL MILLER (Professor of Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): If you test people while they're texting or talking on the phone, they will actually miss a lot of things that are happening in their visual periphery. Things that are very important...
Unidentified Scientist: You don't think to yourself, I'm completely distracted. You think you're doing just fine until you rear end the person in front of you.
INSKEEP: OK. We can almost hear you arguing with some of those scientists. Maybe you want to shoot off an email with your thumbs while driving. We're going to ask NPR's Jon Hamilton about this in a few minutes. He's been looking into multitasking and has this report for this week's segment on "Your Health."
JON HAMILTON: 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. Marcel Just, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University, says that's why people learning to drive don't do anything else.
Dr. MARCEL JUST (Neuroscientist, Carnegie Mellon University): Novice drivers turn off the radio. They ask you to not to talk to them. They need all the brain participation they can get for the driving.
HAMILTON: But that changes with experience. Over time, the brain rewires itself to get the job done very efficiently. So when our eyes see a red light, our foot hits the brake. Marcel Just says driving becomes automatic.
Dr. JUST: 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 driving.
HAMILTON: Scientists call this phenomenon automaticity. It lets us do one thing while focusing on something else. In other words, it helps us to multitask. So 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 little bit more refined.
(Soundbite of music)
HAMILTON: A professional 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. Frasch has no trouble talking about his childhood while playing this Bach minuet.
(Soundbite of Jacob Frasch performing Bach minuet on the piano)
Mr. JACOB FRASCH (Musician): I remember as early as six years old or maybe five years old, I was begging my parents for piano lessons. We had a...
HAMILTON: But Marcel Just, the neuroscientist, says 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.
Dr. JUST: 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.
HAMILTON: Our pianist is multitasking up a storm. But his brain is working near capacity. So let's see what happens if we increase the load just a little.
Mr. FRASCH: This is the "Intermezzo in A Major."
(Soundbite of Jacob Frasch performing "Intermezzo in A Major" on the piano)
HAMILTON: We had Jacob Frasch switch to this Brahms piece which he knows by heart. Then we put a newspaper article in front of him.
Mr. FRASCH: I think it's about a dog washing service.
HAMILTON: And we asked if he could read it aloud.
Mr. FRASCH: Sure. Here's a recipe for a happy dog. Drag yourself out of bed early - out bed early, grab an old towel and a cup of coffee, and pile into the car with your pooch. Then slip away before rush hour sets in...
HAMILTON: You heard Frasch stumble on some words, but he recovered nicely like a driver on a cell phone who catches himself drifting into another lane. So let's take it up another notch.
(Soundbite of piano music)
HAMILTON: We'll start with a piece of music Frasch has never seen before. He's sight reading, like a driver trying to follow directions through a big city. And then we'll ask him to do something that requires more concentration.
If I were to ask you to do a math problem, so, you know, what's 73 minus 21?
Mr. FRASCH: This might take me a while. Fifty-two.
HAMILTON: Now when you answered that, it sounded like you almost had to stop to get your mind in a different gear.
Mr. FRASCH: I did.
HAMILTON: And you may have heard Frasch hit a few wrong notes. A multitasking driver might have hit something else. The pianist, who was already working hard to follow the music, just couldn't handle something else that required real thinking. Imagine driving an unfamiliar route through heavy traffic when you get a cell phone call from your angry spouse. Neuroscientist Marcel Just says you may not notice that stalled car up ahead.
Dr. JUST: People say when an accident is happening - you have these phenomenological reports - people say, my life flashed in front of me. Time seemed to slow down. And I think that those are manifestations of your brain very suddenly attempting to change modes from the automatic to some very controlled strategic mode.
HAMILTON: Which takes time, maybe only a quarter of a second, but on the freeway that means you've gone an extra 20 feet before you hit the brake. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And as promised, Jon is with us in the studio now to answer some question. Hi, Jon.
MONTAGNE: You know, listening to your story - and pretty fascinating how the brain works there - but you'd think that the street would be littered with the smashed cars of cell phoning drivers. But you don't really see that. Are maybe scientists a little too agitated about this?
HAMILTON: Well, when they did the studies, the traffic statistics, it turns out that people who are talking on their cell phones are about four times as likely as people who are not distracted to get into an accident. So that's not enough to litter the streets, but it's pretty significant.
MONTAGNE: When we were introducing your story, I heard one of those scientists in that little clip we played say that driving while using a cell phone is equivalent to being legally drunk. What's the science on that?
HAMILTON: The science is they took a group of people and they put them in a driving simulator, and they gave these people some drinks to see how much that impaired their performance. And by impaired, they were looking at things like how long does it take you to hit the brake pedal, or do you weave out of the lane and are unaware of it? And what they found was that the talking on the cell phone looked almost exactly like having had enough drinks to put you over the legal limit.
MONTAGNE: But what about hands-free devices? For instance, in California where I live, you are not allowed to use cell phones unless they're hands-free. It's one of several states that does that. Does that mean they're safer?
HAMILTON: You would think that would confer a real advantage, but in fact when they did the studies comparing handheld cell phones versus the hands-free devices, they found that both of them were about the same in the increase in accidents. And that suggests that it's the brain processing information, not the actual visual attention, that is causing the problem.
MONTAGNE: Of course, drivers talk to passengers all the time, so what's the difference between talking to someone on the phone, especially if it's hands-free, and someone who's right there next to you in the car in the back seat.
HAMILTON: Well, you know, I asked all of our neuroscientists that we talked to over this series about that. And what they said was the big difference is that when somebody is sitting there, two things. One, they're seeing what you're seeing out on the road. The other thing is they're seeing you. And when we see somebody who is - looks troubled or something, we instantly stop talking to them. For that matter, if we see something on the road that looks like trouble, we stop talking to them as well. That doesn't happen with a cell phone. You know that big truck is coming at you, and that person in your ear just keeps talking because they have no idea there's something that's distracting you.
MONTAGNE: OK, bottom line. It's a sunny day here in Los Angeles. I'm going to drive home from work on roads that I travel on every single day. I'll have a device in my cell phone that I thought - until just a little while ago I thought was pretty safe because it's hands-free. What would be the most responsible way for me to use that cell phone in the car?
HAMILTON: Well, it depends a lot on what's happening around you. And the thing you've got going against you is that you're probably going to get on, you know, the San Diego freeway or something that's really busy and is changing all the time. And so even if at the moment you start talking everything is fine, you could have a change that happens in the traffic or something that would make it not fine. Now if you are out in the middle of the Mojave Desert driving on a road straight ahead, daytime, no cars around, that would be very different. But it's hard to find a place in Los Angeles that probably would be considered safe to talk on a cell phone.
MONTAGNE: So you're saying the most responsible way to use my cell phone in the car is to leave it in the glove compartment.
HAMILTON: And then when you get a chance to pull over, then see who called and call them back.
MONTAGNE: I'll try.
MONTAGNE: Jon, thanks very much.
HAMILTON: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Jon Hamilton.
INSKEEP: If you think multitasking is a myth, you're not alone. Check out our other reports on this subject at our Web site, npr.org.
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