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Why do You Turn Down the Radio When You’re Lost?

You’re dri­ving through sub­ur­bia one evening look­ing for the street where you’re sup­posed to have din­ner at a friend’s new house. You slow down to a crawl, turn down the radio, stop talk­ing, and stare at every sign. Why is that? Nei­ther the radio nor talk­ing affects your vision.

Or do they?

In talk­ing about using a cell phone while dri­ving, Steven Yantis, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, had this to say:

“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.”

He's talking about divided attention, or the ability to multitask and pay attention to two things at once. It's generally much harder than selective, or focused, attention. The factors that come into play are your attentional capacity and the processing requirements - essentially how much of which areas of your brain are needed to process the input.

Your attentional capacity can be taken up by inhibiting (tuning out) distractions, dividing your attention across multiple things, or even sustaining your attention on one thing (vigilance). Fatigue takes a big toll on attention. If you're tired, it's harder to concentrate. Depression has a similar effect. In fact, many memory complaints may be actually depression- or fatigue-related reduced attentional capacity. And guess what? Getting older both reduces your attentional capacity and increases your processing requirements. Basically, it takes more and more inhibition skill to tune out distractions and stay focused. But all is not lost; there are steps you can take to multitask better!

How to Divide Your Attention More Effectively

  • Do very different tasks. It's much harder to do two very similar tasks (read and talk) at the same time than it is to do two very different tasks (run and talk). If you can use separate areas of the brain, that will help, but warning: the brain doesn't always segregate perceptual information as clearly as you might think.
  • Practice. If you're better at each task independently, you'll be better at doing them at the same time (even if you don't do them as well simultaneously as when you do each one separately).
  • Keep it simple. If you have to multitask, multitasking simple tasks will be more successful than trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem in your head while simul­ta­ne­ously writ­ing a novel.
  • Train your brain. Torkel Kling­berg, of the Karolin­ska Insti­tute in Stock­holm, Swe­den said "we have shown that working memory can be improved by training and that such training helps people with attention deficits and it also improves reasoning ability overall."

So, you're not nuts to turn down the volume when you're lost. By doing that, you are allowing more of your brain to focus on your mission - to find dinner!

Further Links
Com­put­er­ized train­ing of work­ing mem­ory in chil­dren with ADHD
Innovations Report
Atten­tion and Per­for­mance Lim­i­ta­tions
<a href=“” onclick=“_gaq.push([’_trackEvent’, ‘outbound-article’, ‘’, ‘Atten­tion and Sex: An Essay on Divided Atten­tion’]);” target=“_blank””>Attention and Sex: An Essay on Divided Attention

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  1. […] (Please remem­ber we have moved to a new loca­tion. You can find this post in its new loca­tion at In talk­ing about using a cell phone while dri­ving, Steven Yan­tis, a pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Psy­cho­log­i­cal and Brain Sci­ences at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, had this to say: “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.” […]

  2. Neal Cohen says:

    The other day I was work­ing with an ado­les­cent and his fam­ily (I am a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist). The ado­les­cent has an atten­tion deficit asso­ci­ated with a rel­a­tive weak­ness in work­ing mem­ory. Although very intel­li­gent (Full Scale IQ in the Supe­rior range), his aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance is below average.

    He believed that he would be less dis­tractible if he could be blind­folded. The par­ents protested his “silliness.” I thought that the ado­les­cent had an inter­est­ing hypoth­e­sis that needed to be tested out. I gave him a blind­fold that I use when test­ing sensory-motor function.

    Over the next 20 min­utes the change in the adolescent’s behav­ior and the family’s inter­ac­tion was astound­ing. In short, the whole fam­ily set­tled down. It was clear that the ado­les­cent knew from his own expe­ri­ence that his atten­tion (and behav­ior) would improve if the demands on his atten­tion decreased.

    “So, you’re not nuts to turn down the vol­ume when you’re lost. By doing that, you are allow­ing more of your brain to focus on your mis­sion — to find dinner!”

  3. Caroline says:

    What a great exam­ple! It makes me won­der if head­phones play­ing white noise or some­thing might help him when read­ing or study­ing? Class­room lec­tures will prob­a­bly always be tough for him, although sit­ting near the front of the room would help limit visual and audial distractions.

    It’s also inter­est­ing to note how cre­ative and insight­ful peo­ple are with their own conditions.

    Thanks for the comment!

  4. Alvaro says:

    I thought that the ado­les­cent had an inter­est­ing hypoth­e­sis that needed to be tested out.” What a lux­ury for that ado­les­cent to count on such an open-minded, empir­i­cal, ally. Thanks, Neal!

  5. […] The Sharp­brains blog explains: […]

  6. […] Fur­ther Read­ing on Stress and Mem­ory Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapol­sky, Ph.D. A Primer on Mul­ti­task­ing Sim­ple Stress Test Quick Stress Buster Is there such thing as GOOD stress? Learn More about Brain Fit­ness Join our Mes­sage Boards Find the Right Pro­gram Tags: No Tags […]

  7. Dave Bell says:

    It would seem log­i­cal that the reverse may also be true: when stu­dents focus on the visual, they lis­ten less acutely. I know when I teach music ensem­bles, I some­times must close my eyes to hear detail at its finest detail. Think of the impli­ca­tions for the classroom!

  8. Mark says:

    Another rea­son for turn­ing the stereo down could be habit. When­ever I’m dri­ving some­where new and there’s some­one else in the car, I’ll ask them to help spot signs etc., so I’ll turn down the stereo so I can hear what they say. Per­haps it becomes habit­ual to turn down the stereo even if no-one else is in the car?

    Another rea­son is that I turn up the stereo while dri­ving (to counter the noises of dri­ving), so it’s a lit­tle too loud when the car is sta­tion­ary. Thus I turn it down just before I’m about to stop. I do this even when dri­ving into my own street (which I obvi­ously wouldn’t need extra atten­tional resources to deal with).

    None of which says that the cost of divided atten­tion doesn’t also con­tribute, of course. :)

Categories: Attention and ADD/ADHD, Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Peak Performance, Professional Development

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