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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, Dr. 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, talking on a cell phone) it necessarily extracts a cost on another modality (say, 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. 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: A growing number of studies show how attention and working memory can be improved via physical exercise, meditation, cognitive training and other approaches.

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!

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8 Responses

  1. 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!”

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. Gwen says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I had my aha moment. My short term memory and my ability to recall have been compromised the last few years and getting worse. However, I’ve had intense stress for a decade and have developed autoimmune and chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia type pain. There’s maybe a chance that my memories are still there, I’m just having problems accessing everything and focusing due to my brain power going to the pain and fatigue.

  7. Jeremy says:

    Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain. Thanks for the information!

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