Why do we turn down the radio when we’re lost?

In 1930, the Radio Manufacturers Association lobbied that backseat passengers were more of a driver distraction than a car radio; listening to the radio, they claimed, was safer than looking in the rear view mirror. Some strongly opposed the industry’s claims, arguing car radios were distracting and hazardous. Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Ohio state legislatures all considered implementing car radio fines, and in 1935 Connecticut legislators actually did introduce a bill that would have placed a steep fine on radio installation — $50 in 1935, which is about $850 today. Others considered making car radio installation a crime. It wasn’t until the 1939, though, that anyone actually studied whether a correlation between car radios and car crashes existed: Car radios played little to no role in car accidents, determined the Princeton Radio Research Project.

Decades ago, the Society of Automotive Engineers advised drivers follow the 15-second rule. That is, a driver can be distracted with an in-car activity, such as talking to passengers or retrieving an item from the glove compartment, for up to 15 seconds before the task becomes a visual distraction and becomes unsafe. Fifteen seconds, can you imagine? Every five seconds at 55 mph a car travels about 360 feet (107 meters), which is the length of a football field. Now multiply that by three — that’s a lot of distance covered without the driver’s attention and focus on driving. Today, both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recommend no in-car activity take more than two seconds, else it becomes a distraction.

We’d be surprised if a present-day car rolled off the assembly line without at least a radio installed, if not a sleek audio system. Today, too, car audio systems are considered to be among low-level distractions (along with eating and drinking) that, combined, are responsible for distracting us about one-third of the time we spend behind the wheel. In fact any time you fiddle with a device — or reach for a french fry — while you’re driving, you take your attention away from the road.

Although listening to music while driving has long been considered a driving distraction, hearing the music without handling a media player or touching the car audio controls, has been found, actually, to contradict that long-held belief. Listening to music — just listening — it turns out, may help drivers stay focused on the road during long trips on monotonous highways. So why, then, are we wonky about the radio volume when it comes time to look for an upcoming exit sign or when we’re approaching an unfamiliar destination? It has to do with the demands on our ability to concentrate, and the limitations of the human brain.

Turning down the radio instead of looking at a map when you find yourself lost or driving on unfamiliar roads may seem like a strange thing to do, but as it turns out, it’s not strange at all. It’s your brain’s natural reaction to the circumstances.

In order to understand why you turn down the radio when you’re lost, you have to understand a few things about how the human brain works. The human brain has three parts: the cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, and the part that controls your higher cognitive functions such as language and emotions; the cerebellum, which controls your muscle movements and balance; and the brainstem, which controls all the body’s automatic functions, such as breathing, as well as acting as the relay station between the spinal cord and the cerebrum and cerebellum.

As you go through your day, you collect information about your environment through your five primary sensory systems: taste, hearing, smell, touch and vision. Each sensory system has its own sensory neurons, and each tells the central nervous system about changes in your environment. The brain, which is part of the central nervous system, combines all this information and decides how to proceed. That process is called encoding. The brain is constantly evaluating what should be its primary task — the chief task the brain focuses on — and its secondary task, the concurrent task that gets less focus.

The brain’s ability to switch back and forth between its tasks is called attention switching, and it comes with a price: When the brain switches its focus and attention from one task to another it’s fast, but it’s not instantaneous. Those fractions of a second spent attention toggling may slow down your performance, including minor delays in your reaction times. And when you’re lost, that could mean the difference between seeing or not seeing the street sign you need to spot.

People often turn down the radio when driving in crowded urban areas, looking for a specific address, or driving in dangerous conditions (such as torrential rain or during a snowstorm) because those activities require more concentration than during a typical drive. Turning the radio down or off eliminates a task from the brain’s to-do list, shifting its focus to the most important task: finding the way.


Face the Music: Limits of the Human Sensory Systems

At work, 11 percent of us write our to-do lists during meetings, and more than half of us check email while we’re on a phone call. Many of us like to think of ourselves as expert multitaskers — and we consider performing two or more tasks at the same time, performing two or more tasks quickly back to back, or switching rapidly between two tasks to be the norm. Yet what you might not realize is that such alleged productivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Although many of us are proud of our multitasking abilities, and despite our fondness for juggling multiple cognitive tasks simultaneously, the brain isn’t actually built to multitask.

Give the brain one task, and it’s no problem. Two tasks, and the brain divides and conquers them. More than two tasks, though, and things change. With divided focus and attention, the brain begins to perform less effectively, and is prone to making more errors.

The human brain, it turns out, doesn’t have infinite resources, and it handles tasks sequentially — yet it’s able to switch from task to task so rapidly we think we’re multitasking. And because we have a limited capacity when it comes to focus and attention, especially when we’re concentrating hard, the brain has to choose what information gets processed and encoded. For example, your brain can handle either visual driving-related tasks (looking for an address) or rocking out. Not only is the brain incapable of multitasking, when we try to multitask each goal competes for the brain’s available resources. Multitasking creates a traffic jam, and in the end we perform poorly on each task as a result. We overlook important information, we make errors, and we end up remembering less information overall. When the brain is forced to switch rapidly from task to task it doesn’t perform as well as it does when it can focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking increases our error rate by as much as 50 percent. And it doesn’t speed things up, either — trying to multitask doubles the amount of time it takes to perform each of the tasks at hand. When you introduce a third task, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which makes executive decisions, will discard the one it considers the least important. It’s got to do with the limits of our sensory system; we tune out what our brain determines to be of lesser importance. When we’re lost or when we have to perform a driving task that we don’t do very often, such as parallel parking, we edit our environment. We stop listening to passenger conversation, our field of vision shrinks, and we turn down the radio’s volume (or we turn it off) in an effort to throw all of our focus into vision or spatial relationships, respectively.


Author’s Note: Why do we turn down the radio when we’re lost?

If you insist on trying to multitask, making those tasks as dissimilar as possible may work better than juggling tasks that rely on the same area of the brain. For instance, although your overall performance will be hindered when compared to doing each cognitive task independently, you’ll have more success walking and talking than reading and talking because walking involves the cerebellum, and talking, the cerebrum. Alternatively, scientists suggest taking control of our focus and attention, consciously beginning and ending one task at a time. This is called set shifting, a practice that has fewer errors than multitasking. Other research suggests devoting 20 minutes to one goal at a time before consciously switching to the next.