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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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10 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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