Driving Into the Future

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably noticed a quickly emerging trend in new car technologies: park assist, self driving cars, eye level projection screens, etc. This is the first in a series of posts looking at how these new innovations will impact how we drive into the future.

Part One: Driving Distracted


I’ll admit, this video impressed me. Sleek, fast, and confident, it makes an impact. But when we look critically at the core of what distracted driving means, the illusion starts to become a bit more clear.

Let’s start by looking at the logic underlying the new technologies connecting our cars and phones. The current social norm is that people use their phones while driving. Texting has become less acceptable, but we still do it, and talking while driving is still widespread and legal in most states.

Secondly, the way most of us use our phone is by physically looking down at it, thus taking our eyes off the road. Common perception is that the physical distraction of looking down causes the danger of distracted driving. So if we can have a way to use phones without taking our eyes off the road,  we can improve driver safety. This is the argument put forth by companies marketing these products. However, many experts in driving safety think that these arguments are based on faulty claims.

All Seeing is Not Created Equal
If you read any popular psychological theories, you will notice the common theme that as humans, we strongly overestimate our cognitive abilities. Our brains make us think that we notice everything that happens in front of us, and that we have a great ability to multitask. However, the reality is in fact opposite; we are poor multitaskers and commonly miss things that happen right before our eyes.

These are the ideas underlying the concept of cognitive distraction, which is essentially how even though our eyes may be physically on the road, if our minds are not focused on driving we will miss things even if they may be in our visual field. Studies have shown (based on the work of Dr. Paul Atchley) that cognitive distraction is just about as dangerous as physical distraction (i.e. looking down).

If this is true, then hands free or screen projection technologies are no safer than normal phone use, as they will lead to equally dangerous distraction. I may take this a bit further and say that they have the potential to be more dangerous, as they give a strong illusion of safety, tricking our minds into thinking we aren’t distracted at all.

Social Norms
We’ve all felt that familiar pull, that undeniable urge to take just one quick look at our phone to see who the text is from, besides I don’t see any other cars on the road and it will be quick and I’m a safe driver anyways so this is ok  and it might be important. Yea, we all rationalize it, don’t deny. But why is the urge so strong that we disregard what we know about safety to fulfill it. Some would say because we can’t handle being alone.


Or maybe it’s the fear of missing out, that if I don’t read this text right now some great chance at success will be unfulfilled, an opportunity gone forever. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t seem rational. There seems to be no good reason for this widely accepted social norm.

So, the question that naturally follows is, why not change it? Public perception does seem to be shifting a bit. Public service ads are pretty much on point with the “it can wait” theme. This is only a partial answer though, because we rationally know it can and should wait, but if we aren’t more intentional about locking the phone away, that urge often gets the best of us.  And if we blindly accept the new “safe” technologies and don’t look more critically, we’ll continue to perpetuate the illusion.



If you keep making that face, it might get stuck that way!

Previously in the Sound Body and Mind series, we looked at how media affects children’s health.  This post focuses on certain detrimental effects of staring at screens. (Which I am doing right now as I write this!)

At some point between the ages of 3 and 5, 97% of Americans have an insatiable desire to make weird, obnoxious faces for no apparent reason.  True story.  Our parent’s cure for this ailment: threaten us with the statement that is the title of this piece.  At the time it was an effective method, as our parent’s word was Law.  But why the heck am talking about this anyway?


While I admit it’s a loose analogy, when we stare at computer, TV, or cell phone screens, our brains actually do get stuck in a certain pose.  The brain doesn’t stick its tongue out and go cross-eyed, but certain patterns of neuronal firing do change when we become screen zombies. This can affect vision, sleep, and how the brain processes all the data that it gets throughout the day.

First, let’s look at vision.  Excessive screen use can cause what is referred to as computer vision syndrome, or CVS, and I promise I didn’t make this term up.  While it usually goes unnoticed, using a computer is like a workout for your eyes; the eye muscles are constantly having to flex and relax to adjust to the changing images, light, and glare that emanate from  a computer screen.  This can cause eye strain, blurred vision, headaches, and neck or back pain.

Being constantly bombarded by screens can also interfere with how the brain learns and interprets the world around us.  When we interact with our surroundings, our brains have to process this information.  Studies in rats have shown that the brain requires “down time” to process new information.  Without being allowed to rest and be devoid of stimuli, the rats weren’t able to form the neural connections necessary to make a permanent memory.


We can extrapolate and apply this to humans.  Whenever you have to wait in line or get a moment alone, with nothing imminent at hand, what do you do?  Whip out the phone, check email, text, play games, the list goes on.   I’m as guilty as anyone.  If we apply lessons from the rat brain to our own, it seems that this time may be better spent by doing nothing.  Relax, take deep breath, stare mindlessly out the window.  This may be just what the brain craves.

Lastly, studies have shown that screen time before bed may affect sleep. Just in case you aren’t sick of neuroscience already, here’s a little more.  Melatonin is a hormone released in the brain during the evening and night, and it is important for regulating the sleep cycle.  Exposure to light inhibits melatonin production.   This makes sense evolutionarily, as you wouldn’t want to fall asleep while running away through the jungle at high noon to avoid a meeting with a friendly tiger.  However, humans have recently evolved a strange trait; reflexively checking our phones and computers before bed.  It turns out that phones, tablets, and computers emit a very potent light, which is capable of suppressing melatonin.  Checking your email one last time may seem harmless, but it may in fact disrupt sleep.


In conclusion, all of you should turn off your lights, your TV, sit in the dark for two hours before bed, and check your cell phone only twice per day.  Candles are allowable.  All joking aside, the verdict seems to still be out on the extent that these occurrences affect our health.  Most of the studies do seem to make sense though, and think we take some good practical advice from them:

  • Try to cut off screen time about 30 minutes to an hour before bed
  • Turn down the brightness on a tablet or computer screen at night
  • Turn the iPhone off, and just take a little time each day to sit and relax (it may also help in other ways)
  • When using the computer for long periods of time, take a break and look away every 20 minutes or so

Overall, if you use modern technologies in a responsible, moderate manner, I think the problems discussed in this post can be avoided.  And I hope our brains don’t get stuck that way!







Images from:  wikipedia.com, npr.org, and knowyourmeme.com

A State of Distraction: Camera Phones and Experiencing the Present

So far, the State of Distraction series has looked at how technology distracts us from self-reflection and from engaging in the reality of life. This post focuses on how the prevalence of camera phones affects our personal and cultural experiences of the present moment.

Last fall I saw Mumford and Sons perform an outdoor concert, and it was an incredible show.  The band had high energy, great onstage chemistry, and for the most part the crowd was really into it.   However, I was constantly surrounded by people texting and taking pictures or videos.  Instead of dancing or singing, the crowd around us preoccupied themselves with attempting to document and share this moment.


Is this harmful, or harmless?  Am I bringing up a legitimate concern, or am I just old fashioned and out of touch?  Either way, it can’t be ignored that the presence of camera phones is changing how we experience the present moment, and I would like to argue that it profoundly affects us on a personal and cultural level.

First, let’s look at this issue from a cultural or social perspective.  I’m almost certain that any person who has attended a concert can relate to the above scenario.  The immediate reaction is to just say who cares?–ignore the people on their phones and have a good time!  I did exactly that at the Mumford concert; I wasn’t about to let an iPhone ruin the show for me.  On a personal level, I experienced my favorite band to the fullest extent.

While we can look past them personally, camera phones do detract from the cultural (or communal) experience of an event.  Picture a concert, college football game, wedding, or any social event you want.  If your image is accurate, it will include many (if not most) people texting or taking pictures of the event.  Now imagine the same event, but this time no one has a phone or camera.  Everyone is fully present and engaged: the whole crowd dancing madly at the concert, connecting with family at the wedding, cheering like a painted-up crazed college kid at the football game.  A much richer, meaningful cultural experience is created when people engage completely in the present moment.

A similar effect occurs on the personal level, and this is beautifully demonstrated in a scene from the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  (As an aside, this is a great movie, and there will most likely be a whole post dedicated to it!).  In the scene, Walter (Ben Stiller) finds the eccentric photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) deep in the Himalayan mountains, where O’Connell has a perfect view of the elusive snow leopard in his sights.  What happens next is that he does not take the shot.  He explains to the much dismayed Walter that some moments are too valuable to try and capture; you must experience them fully in the present.

Scene from movie 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

Taking the picture would have distracted O’Connell from an incredible moment.  Instead of  appreciating the leopard’s beauty and being grateful for having seen it, he would be focused on the future–on capturing an image to prove to others what he saw.  I think Stiller uses this scene to show how our desire to capture every important moment lessens the extent to which we experience these great moments.

I think many people here will object to my claim.  You may say that it’s harmless to snap a quick photo, and it makes up for any distraction by creating a valuable picture to help remember something.  I agree that sometimes there is zero harm in taking a picture.  But I would like to make a distinction between taking a photo now and then, and trying to document every event in your life.  It seems that through Facebook albums, Instagram, and Twitter, our society as a whole is trending towards the latter, and this is dangerous.

Each time we try to document every party, game, dinner, hike, or anything we do, we take ourselves out of the moment.  Instead of being present, we are thinking about the future: about how we can post the picture, who will see it, who will like it.  We can have a much richer and more satisfying experience by not focusing on preserving each moment for the future, but by being fully there in the present.

My challenge to each of us (including myself) is the next time you want to take a picture of something, don’t.  Instead, focus on the time you are in, the people there, the beautiful things you see; be grateful for all that is around you.  I think by making an intentional effort to try this, we can make life a richer experience for ourselves and others.