Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Pop Psych Project: Distracted Driving: This Is Your Brain On Smartphones

If you see this kid on the road, jump out of the way.
In the last 24 hours, I asked Twitter the best way to convince people to stop using their smartphones while driving. I specifically asked people to be nice in their replies.

Here are my tweets:

I received some great responses, which I highlighted in a 9News article. The best replies had a combination of factual information and concern for safety. Here is an example of one of them (more are posted on the 9News website):

Psychologists know about convincing people to change their behavior--it is what we do for a living. When we do this, we understand it is important to highlight the reasons people need to change (and to do so nicely). In that vein, if you are attempting to convince a friend or family member to stop driving while distracted, here are some reasons you can give them (phrased nicely):

1. Driving while distracted impairs our senses just as much as drunk driving (one caveat: once you stop smartphoning, your faculties return immediately. When you stop drinking, you remain drunk for a while).

2. Reaction times for distracted drivers are at least 40% slower than nondistracted drivers. This number increases with people who are new to driving (i.e. teenagers).

3. Smartphoning while driving uses a high percentage of your "working memory" ability. This is like the RAM in your brain--you only have a certain capacity to juggle tasks. Just like your computer, when you have too many apps running at once, everything slows down.

4. Many drivers make mistakes when they are driving. Distracted drivers make the same types of mistakes that nondistracted drivers make, they just make A LOT more of them.

5. Your brain's electrical activity actually changes when you are distracted. Researchers have been able to blindly look at brain EEGs and determine which were from distracted drivers and which were from nondistracted drivers. So, if you are using your smartphone while driving, your brain is literally impaired.

6. Hands free phones are just as dangerous as holding the phone to your ear. This is a big one--that hands free Bluetooth in your car? You might as well be driving with a drink in your hand (see caveat from point #1).

If you don't believe me on point number 6, I don't blame you. It is hard to fathom. But, a study from February of 2013 demonstrated this phenomenon in startling terms. Using functional MRIs, these researchers determined that nondistracted drivers relied heavily on input from the occipital portion of their brain. This is the portion that controls our vision and interprets visual stimuli. But, distracted drivers (even those who were hands free) stopped using the visual portion of their brains. Instead, the prefrontal cortices of their brains lit up. This is the portion of the brain used for logical thinking and cognitive processing. The fMRI images from distracted drivers showed that they literally stopped seeing what was around them, even though they were free to move their heads wherever they wanted and had both hands on the wheel.

The prefrontal cortex is the front portion of the Frontal Lobe

So, if you try to convince a loved one to stop driving while distracted, be nice about it. And, use the tips above to provide them with some good reasons why they need to change their behavior.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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