Why Do We Turn Down the Car Radio to “See” Better?
Do you find yourself turning down the volume of the car stereo when you are lost or looking for an address or trying to park in a particularly tight spot or when heavy rain or fog reduces visibility? Odd, isn’t it, when up until then, the blasting speakers and screaming kids in the backseat didn’t affect your driving. Well, we instinctively reduce, remove or shush these auditorial inputs for good reason, though it is not to improve your eyesight – not quite.
Our brains, as greatly improved as evolution made it to be, has a finite capacity for attention and processing information. In fact, many psychologists argue that there are no such things as multi-tasking and while we might seem to be doing multiple things at once, it is only our brains switching quickly from one task to another.
The brain is constantly processing information from all our senses. Think of “paying attention” as there being a filter to remove or mute less urgent information, but some of our limited brain cells are still devoted to operating this filter. When we turn down the volume or gag the kids (just kidding!), we free up these brain cells and devote more of them to the task at hand.
You might ask why, then, can most of us drive effectively while listening to music. If you drive frequently and especially on familiar roads, it is what psychologists call a “low-load” task, that is it requires less of the brain’s processing capacity. But when you are looking out for road signs, trying to figure out unfamiliar roads and traffic flow or trying to make out shapes through sheets of rain, you tap into a bigger share of your limited cognitive resources.
In short, you are turning down the volume not to “see” better, but rather to think/focus better.
This brings us to the subject of distracted driving. While some of us might be quite proud of our “multitasking” ability and being able to steal quick glances at our phones while also piloting a three-tonne vehicle on the highway, researchers have found that there is a time-cost for switching between tasks. Even though it might be just a few tenths of a second during the switch, for a driver moving at 60mph, it could mean not having enough time to avert a crash.
So, the next time your passengers (or kids) laugh at you for switching off the radio to “see” better, the joke’s on them.