fMRI study: Paying attention to sound diverts the brain from visual inputs

A small fMRI study out of Linköping University in Sweden shows why it’s dangerous to not only text while driving but also to talk on the phone.

Researchers had 32 volunteers listen to a sound sequence while holding their gaze on a fixed point. They were to move an index finger as the tone changed.

Functional MR imaged the brain as it worked to block out the auditory distraction and, sure enough, the imaging showed the subjects’ hearing was “impaired” as a result of a decreasing response by the nerves in the auditory cortex.

“The brain is really clever and helps us to concentrate on what we need to do,” the lead researcher is quoted as saying by The Ticker, a student-run newspaper at Baruch College in New York. “But the brain can’t cope with too many tasks: Only one sense at a time can perform at its peak. This is why it’s not a good idea to talk on the phone while driving.”

Left unasked, at least in the coverage, is whether listening to podcasts, talk radio or music stations while behind the wheel might distract drivers to a similarly significant degree.