System overload may cause inattention blindness

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- We have all heard about the dangers of texting or cellphone use while driving.

But why is it such a problem? Let's take a look at how the brain processes information.

All of the information we comprehend is brought to our consciousness through two functions, either perception or cognition. Perception is an understanding of your environment based on rapid, largely automatic functions that require little effort. This is primarily what we glean from our sensory system.

Cognition, on the other hand, is slower and more demanding. An example of cognition would be deducing you are in the wrong gear by your car's high revolutions per minute, performance and engine noise. You perceive each piece of information but need cognition to put the pieces of information together to understand the situation.

We are literally bombarded by millions of stimuli every day -- far too much for our brain to process. To smoothly function, our brain weeds out some of that "excess" information.

Unfortunately this weeding process doesn't consult our higher levels of thinking but is relegated to the baser levels of consciousness. Not only are these decisions made relatively unintelligently, but they're also made on a subconscious level.

So let's put that together in simpler terms: While driving, my brain is constantly making uninformed decisions on what sensory information it allows me to be aware of. Usually this is not a problem; however, when I throw a few more irons on the fire -- like texting or talking on the cellphone -- my mind becomes overloaded. Even more sensory information is now dropped. We don't realize there's a problem until we have the near miss or worse because this process is subconscious.

For those who believe this cannot happen to you, I challenge you to count the white team's passes as you watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo. Keep in mind that counting passes is far less demanding than driving a car, not to mention driving while talking or texting on a phone.

See anything unexpected in that video? If no, watch it again.

The technical term for this situation is inattention blindness. Due to its subtle nature, there are no great warning signs you've missed critical information.

So how do you stay safe? Your best option is to not put yourself into a situation where you're trying to process too much information at once. Don't phone and drive.

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