Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Can distractions really enhance motor performance?

Texting while driving seems to score pretty high up there on the "I really shouldn't be doing this right now" list.

A study in 2009 by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truck drivers who were texting on the road were 23 times more likely to find themselves involved in an accident.

Incidentally, and much to my bewilderment, truck drivers who talked on cell phones were found to have absolutely no increased risk for crashing. I suppose it's much easier to say over the phone than to text "Slow down. Smokey Bear (cop) on your tail. Watch out for that barbershop (bridge lower than 13'6") up ahead or you'll soon find yourself driving a bobtail (tractor without a trailer). Looks about time to head over to that pickle park (a state highway rest area...I wonder why they call it that...)". You can find more CB terminology here.

Most of us would likely think any type of distraction would negatively affect motor performance. However, a recent study by Hemond, Brown, and Robertson published in the Journal of Neuroscience, proves this isn't necessarily the case.

The team from Harvard Medical School and McGill University questioned whether the very nature of the distraction would play a role in motor performance by either impairing or enhancing performance. They had a total of four conditions. In condition 1 they had participants complete a task involving motor and color sequencing; the color sequencing serving as a distraction. In condition 2, participants performed both a sequencing and counting task; the counting serving as a distraction. Condition 3 was a randomly assorted task while condition 4 involved a motor sequencing task without distraction.

They found that learning of a motor sequencing task can be enhanced by concurrently performing another sequencing task (condition 1). In contrast, learning was impaired when performance of concurrent tasks did not involve the same cognitive processes (condition 2).

So it's really not about the complexity of information which determines performance, but more about the processes engaged and whether they are similar or different. This led me to wonder what effects intensive simulated training would have on performance. A study done in 1998 by Regan, Deery, and Triggs over at Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia addressed this very thought quite nicely.

In one of their experimental conditions they had participants (novice drivers) complete numerical calculations while concurrently performing a simulated driving task. The numerical calculation task consisted of a single digit appearing in front of the driving participants for one second every five seconds. The participants were required to calculate the difference between the previous two numbers and answer whether the derived number equaled the currently displayed number. They then responded yes or no by pressing one of two switches located on the steering wheel. Training consisted of 20 trials at two minutes each trial.

The authors found that the training group indeed performed better on the driving task compared to a control group. However, the control group tended to do a bit better on the numerical calculation task, although non-significantly. The conclusions of this particular study suggests that training may enhance attentional control while driving. However, this by no means condones the act of texting while driving, even if one were to train for hours on end.

The take home message here folks is to text while you're blogging, not while you're driving!...unless of course, you're already reading road signs. I kid.

Reagan, M. A., Deery, H. A., & Triggs, T. J. (1998). Simulator-based training of attentional control skill in novice drivers. SimTecT98

Hemond, C., Brown, R., & Robertson, E. (2010). A Distraction Can Impair or Enhance Motor Performance Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (2), 650-654 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4592-09.2010


  1. Interesting. Not exactly but sort of related, I've been self-experimenting (I use the term very loosely) with counting two separate sets of objects while doing a motor task (involving one of the two instances of counting). I feel like I'm using different cognitive strategies for each instance. I also wonder how playing musical instruments enters into this (counting beats, time signatures, etc.)

  2. It’s definitely a bad practice to text while driving, especially when it comes to truck drivers! They pose a great risk to fellow drivers and passengers when they do that, considering the size of the vehicle they are driving. Practices like this can be avoided if the truck driver is responsible, and this is why it's important for all truck drivers to undergo training before they receive their CDL license. It's not just the safety of the delivery goods that is at stake here, but also the lives of people.