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Distraction is literally killing us | Paul Atchley | TEDxYouth@KC

so this is a story about your brain it’s

really going to be two stories today the

first is about what happens to your

brain when you try to do two things at

the same time both of which seems simple

but in combination can produce deadly

results the second story is about what

happens when you trade the technological

for the natural now we’re gonna start

with the first story but in preparation

for the second I want to give you a

little task what you see up here is a

task of creativity your task is to think

of these three words same tennis and

head and try to think of one word that

goes with all three that one word might

be part of a word compound it might be

conceptually similar but I guarantee you

that there is one word that joins all

three of these together we’ll come back

to that one a little bit later I’ll give

you some time to think about it over the

past twenty seven years I’ve dedicated

my life to trying to understand how we

use our brain to navigate through the

environment that we live in I work with

pedestrians drivers and pilots to try to

understand how our vision and attention

systems help us move about this very

complex world that we live in and for

the last 17 years I’ve been dedicated to

a very specific issue and that issue has

been the issue of distracted driving

because as we move around our

environment there’s probably nothing

more important than driving 94% of

crashes on our roadways today are due to

human error and understanding how our

brain works in that very special

environment is critical to our safety

health and well-being now there’s no

question I think everyone understands

that distraction is killing us when we

think about all of the fatalities on the

roadways in the United States we start

to begin to understand why our brain is

so important we lose about 40,000 people

every year on our roads in the United

States and there’s certainly not the

safest in the world amongst

industrialized countries and there are

some estimates by groups like the

National Safety Council that one-quarter

of those people are dying because people

are using their phones while driving

and you don’t need to see this yourself

though you might have to really

understand how compelling these devices

are this is a picture that one of my

students sent me and then she quickly

wrote back and said oh no Mike my

boyfriend took it while I was driving I

didn’t take the picture but you see

someone here that’s that’s engaged in

kind of a paradox right this is someone

who’s doing something very dangerous

they’re riding a motorcycle and they’re

doing something equally dangerous

they’re doing it in hands-free and ice

cream mode and at the same time this

individual is wearing a helmet and they

have a safety strap around the rucksack

so in one case they’re being safe and on

the other they’re being wildly unsafe

and I think understanding this and how

compelling these devices are is really

critical for all of us as we’re trying

to move around a world safely now what’s

interesting about this is this really

isn’t a new research problem for people

like me in fact the first studies of

this particular issue using phones while

driving was published in 1969 which

means the advisor and a grad student

were probably doing this work when I was

born in 1967 what that means is that

we’ve been doing research on this issue

for over 50 years and when I tell you

today and make the claim that using your

phone while you’re driving in any manner

hands-free touching it texting just

talking is at best equivalent to driving

drunk I’m not saying it based upon a few

studies I’m saying it based upon

numerous studies and numerous

methodologies that we’ve been using over

50 years two of the best studies that I

think really illustrate how much of a

problem this is are what are called

epidemiological studies there are

studies where people were actually in

crashes in one case the crashes led to a

visit to the emergency room in another

case it did not the crashes were in

different countries these studies were

done by different researchers but the

bottom line is across both studies they

found exactly the same thing you are

four times or more more likely to be in

a crash if you’re using a phone in any

manner it doesn’t matter in this study

if the phone was being used handheld or

hands-free people were more likely to be

in a crash in fact than a drunk driver


to be in a crash and again keep in mind

these are two studies done by two

different groups of people at different

points in time with actual crash victims

now speaking of drunk driving if like my

friend Dave Strayer you had a driving

simulator in your laboratory and you

brought people in at the University of

Utah and got them drunk and when I used

to talk about this

I used to say there on the utah campus

so they’re only a little drunk and i

gave a talk there last year and dave’s

dave raised his hand and said no no they

were really drunk i said okay so if you

were to bring people in and get them

really drunk and then have your to have

them drive in your driving simulator and

then bring them back and have them drive

sober and while they’re driving you give

them some events they’d have to react to

like a suddenly stopping car you would

find that people drive better when

they’re drunk

think about that for a second people

tried better when they’re drunk the

drunk drivers knew that they were

impaired and knew that they were being

watched and so what they made sure to do

is try to be as vigilant as possible and

when cars stopped in front of them they

were slower but they tended to crush the

brake pedal in response in order to stop

the drivers those same drivers when they

came back and they were talking

hands-free on a phone to sum them that

wasn’t in that vehicle with them drove

through four vehicles without even

noticing it and when they were asked

afterwards how did you drive they said

Oh much better when I was drunk what

about that car you drove through no

recollection whatsoever of that event

because it turns out it takes your brain

to drive we’ve used a device that’s used

to measure older adult attention which

is how I really got started in this is

looking at older adults and that device

tells us that the attention of someone

that’s on a phone is so tapped out that

they are at best four times slower to

see and understand what’s happening in

that environment around them four times

is slow in fact when I do this task with

a 19 year old they look like a fighter

pilot but when I give them a fans free

cellular conversation they look like a

seven-year-old adult with Alzheimer’s

disease in Australia they use this task

to screen older drivers and that profile

would lead to that person probably

losing their license the reason why this

is so hard is because your brain just

doesn’t have enough resources to do

multiple things at the same time I know

multitasking Xin

we’ve got some incredibly bright young

adults here today they’re gonna be

talking about some amazing things and in

the back of their head right now they’re

thinking yeah but I’ve been doing this

since I was four so my brain is totally

different right no the problem is all of

our brains are the same and with

training they’re not getting any better

in fact they’re getting worse when you

look at the brain of an individual

that’s trying to talk and look at the

world around them at the same time you

see something very compelling this is a

image of the brain it’s the back of your

brain this is occipital cortex primary

visual processing area and that darker

bit there that red bit that’s

essentially where blood is flowing we’re

where neurons are active means your

brains doing stuff and we can use this

technique to understand which part of

our brain is active and which isn’t on

the Left panel you see the brain of

someone that’s been asked to look at a

traffic scene and just look at a traffic

scene and try to process it and primary

visual processing area is lighting up it

looks like they’re doing something then

when that same person is asked to look

at that traffic scene but then listen to

some simple sentences and because

they’re going to be asked some simple

true and false questions after that

they’re not asked to give those

questions and answers till later just

listen when that person listens now that

brain region turns off by 40% the region

of the brain that’s responsible for

seeing the world starts to deactivate

and regions of that are responsible in

temporal areas for listening start to

activate in other words your brain

doesn’t have enough resources to go

around to do both things at the same

time and the real-world implication of

this is incredibly scary I want you to

imagine that you have a child playing on

a sidewalk in an area like right here in

Kansas City maybe a grandchild or a son

or a daughter or a sibling what you

would want for a driver driving down

your residential neighborhood is that

they would scan on the right side of the

road for your kid playing on the

sidewalk or maybe a car getting ready to

back out into the intersection you want

them to scan on the left to make sure

that there are no sudden events like

cars running in front of them at

unexpected times and like my grandmother

taught me to drive you would want them

scanning the environment as far ahead

not just the car in front of them but as

many cars away as they could see and

what you’re seeing here is

I movement patterns of someone doing

just that that larger box because those

little dots there I trackers so we can

see where people are looking that larger

box is where an attentive driver is

scanning for hazards where your kids

playing where cars might be stopping

where someone might come across the

intersection unexpectedly and here’s

what happens with that tapped out brain

when someone’s asked to have a

conversation with someone that’s not in

the vehicle with them in vehicle

conversations are different because as

we all know when you’re driving in a

complicated environment like under

Bartle Hall here in Kansas City the

conversation stops right but when you’re

talking to someone that’s not in the car

with you now because the brain is trying

to allocate resources strategically

they’re now scanning a region of space

that is about the width of the steering

wheel and about the distance of the

front bumper of the car that means when

your son or daughter your brother or

sister your niece or nephew your

grandchild runs off of the sidewalk into

the street they won’t even be looking at

the right place until that person is

right under the front bumper of their

car and this helps explain while we’re

seeing this huge rise in fatalities and

while we have crashes where people were

are completely not understanding why

they missed it because it seems like

they’re seeing everything but they’re

actually not now I could go on and on

because we’ve been doing this for 50

years this last year we actually did a

study of all of the research that’s out

there on distraction generally looking

at the effect of distraction on driving

and in that study and since then there’s

another hundred studies that have come

out we looked at 342 studies that cover

about sixteen hundred and eight measures

of distraction and about 20,000 people

I’m gonna show up a slightly complicated

graph but here’s what I want you to get

about it what we did was we asked a

simple question did the study show that

there was a negative effect on

performance driving performance for that

distraction no effect because science

sometimes doesn’t find things or the

distraction actually improve performance

and here’s the bottom line when you’re

texting almost every single time we

measure it we find that texting reduces

driving performance but even nine times

that’s that little thing in the middle

there even

9 times we didn’t show texting affected

driving performance because science

isn’t perfect sometimes we don’t find

things but when we look at hands held

versus hands-free that larger piece of

the pie on the middle and outer rings 81

percent of the time plus or minus half a

percent we find that using a phone

reduces your ability to drive safely and

it doesn’t matter if it’s hands held or

hands-free the bottom line is we’ve been

studying this for a decade and we’ve

done hundreds of studies I’m not just

saying this because I think it’s true

I’m saying this because the vast

preponderance of evidence says that

we’re all putting each other at grave

risk when we’re using our phones to

drive down the road and say hey where

you at again the National Safety Council

estimates of the 40,000 people that died

this last year and by the way that’s an

increase and we’ve been increasing for

the last two years and we’re probably

going to increase again this year and

that’s despite the fact that our cars

are safer with automatic braking and

stability control and airbags or roads

are safer because the engineers are

designing them better our emergency

services get to a crash faster and once

you get to the hospital you’re more

likely to live despite all those safety

improvements more people are dying

because of ubiquity of phones in cars

and a quarter the people 10,000 people

that died probably died because someone

was using a phone why do we do it why do

we do it you know this is what’s really

fascinated me I was a brain scientist

who really studied why the brain was

working but I immediately when I started

this work thought to myself this is

crazy why are people doing it and I

really started to study this problem and

really the bottom line is our brain is

wired for smart phones you’re looking at

fMRI again but now I’m going to show you

some fMRI images from areas of the brain

that we call the dopaminergic system

this is the reward system now I can see

everyone so raise your hand if you love

folding laundry please raise your hand

who loves folding laundry oh I’ve got

three people this is amazing all right


usually it takes about 500 and I can get

one so that’s good

if I were to ask the audience you know

even if you don’t love folding laundry

give me one word that describes how you

feel when you’re done folding a basket

of laundry

about it for a second do laundry it’s

it’s her in the basket you walk by it on

Sunday mmm Monday mmm Tuesday Wednesday

finally for laundry how you feel at that

moment you probably say yeah I feel

accomplished I feel like I did something

I have a sense of accomplishment you

feel good and what you’re feeling there

is this dopaminergic system this reward

system that is designed to get you to

fold that darn laundry the next time it

rewards you to reinforce behaviors to

get you to repeat them and what this

image is showing this is the image of

the brain on Facebook because what it’s

showing is the dopaminergic system kicks

in big-time whenever we do something

social and what’s really interesting

those little bars down there the red

bars and the blue bars big bar means

more activity that’s the bar of someone

that’s actually talking about themselves

versus someone that’s just talking in

other words we love to talk about

ourselves so this is why Facebook is so

popular because you get to like things

and tell people what your opinion are is

and where you’ve been and Instagram your

lunch so our brain is wired for this

kind of stuff and there are smart people

where I grew up in Silicon Valley

they’re designing these things to

attract and grab your attention whether

you want it to or not because that’s the

business model when we ask people to put

these things down like we do for

journalism students at the University of

Kansas for 24 to 48 hours these are the

kind of reactions you get and I think it

tells you something about the deep

connection of our brains of this stuff

people look addicted and in fact we’ve

done some work on addiction and I will

tell you there are some people that are

legitimately addicted to their

smartphones I had one young woman when I

gave this talk say I lost my phone for a

while and I felt like I was missing an

arm I was handicapped but what if I told

you that the reason we do this is

because your brain is in fact pulling a

trick on you we fool ourselves in lots

of different ways we think of our brain

is a really complex supercomputer but

it’s not we’ve got billions of neurons

and trillions of connections multiple

areas dedicated to processing speech and

and music and love we can build tools to

go into space but I’d say if you study

it long enough it’s a lot more like this

it does a few things really well but

everything it doesn’t do very well it

sort of disguises from you and I need to

convince you of this fact because I

believe your life is at risk if you

don’t believe me when you drive down the

road you think you see everything we

call perception the grand illusion

because you think you have this 180

degree full-color motion based

high-definition 3d dimensional panorama

available to you at all times

but everyone hold your fists out at

arm’s length look at your fists see your

fists that’s about how much information

you’re processing in the visual world at

any one time you’re driving down the

road and you think you see the woman on

the Left get right getting ready to walk

in the street in the SUV and the people

stopping but really you have this little

tiny window that you’re sort of moving

around and you’re sort of building up an

image of what you see you don’t see

everything at the same time I’m gonna

convince you of this I’m going to show

you some work we did with actual drivers

driving in in Chicago so we took

pictures of driving scenes and we asked

folks to look at these driving scenes

and what we did was we manipulated the

driving scene so I want you to look at

this as a driver and what I’m gonna do

is I’m gonna actually change something

in the scene and you have to just raise

your hand when you spot it and I’m

running out of time so we’ll move on

here we go just spot the change in the

driving scene and raise your hand when

you see it drivers uh-oh well I’ve got

one good I’ll drive home with you that’s

good two or three we are limited on time

so I’ll give you a couple more seconds

okay great good and you also like

folding laundry it’s like a double win

that’s fantastic okay if you’ve looked

at that 50 mile an hour sign on the left

a few times take a look at it again do

you see that 20 story apartment building

right next to it that’s appearing and

disappearing there it is there it goes

there it is there it goes everyone see

it now all right now you’re saying

yourself that’s not fair you tricked me

and I did trick you I tricked you

because I started talking to you about

driving and your attention system is

limited so it immediately went into a

mode of being efficient and said I’m

gonna look for driving things and so it

looked at that car right in front of you

and you said well nothing happened in


so then it looked at the car that was

nearby and you don’t see anything

happening there

moved your eyes looked at the sign you

didn’t see anything happening the sign

is kind of big so you looked at it a

couple of times and you didn’t see

anything and so eventually you probably

looked at that 50 mile an hour sign now

here’s what you need to know that first

thing you looked at that red car

disappeared your brain can track about 4

objects at any one time we’ve spent

billions of dollars US military and

militaries around the world to spend

billions of dollars trying to improve

situational awareness of pilots and

others to get them to see and pay

attention to more than four things it’s

a hardwired limit the other thing it

needs to notice is even though you’re

paying attention that 50 mile an hour

sign and that change was right next to

it you didn’t see it because you pay

attention to objects not regions of

space and it wasn’t until I told you

about that building that you noticed it

now you’ll notice it every single time

there’s a cure there’s a cure and

there’s good news the good news is all

we really need to do is put down our

devices for a little bit and go outside

I want to talk very briefly about some

research that I’ve done with the

beautiful and talented dr. roof an

actually and some colleagues at the

University of Utah looking at what

happens when people put down their

devices and go outside for some period

of time this is research that’s been

covered in great places like backpacker

magazine which means you get to hang out

with backpackers it’s in been in recent

of recent book called the nature fix and

they see what we did was we took people

out into nature on long hikes and gave

them these kinds of tasks you’ve had

some time to think about it what’s the

word the words match tennis match match

and same are related the head of a match

now these aren’t easy so we gave these

to people knowing they wouldn’t solve

very many of them and when we did this

and had people go out and hike in the

Rockies and do really interesting things

what we saw is that the ability to solve

these creative problems win up by 50

percent we never see increases of 50

percent in anything in a psychological

science research study and yet we saw

that here and it’s been replicated in

other studies we’ve recently replicated

it with teams working together in office

environments versus outdoor environments

and we still see that same improvement

it’s also interesting is when you go

outside you become more emotionally

intelligent you become more sensitive to

the emotions of others because the brain

regions that are being

distracted and that are being stimulated

by nature actually help make you

emotionally smarter we took people out

and gave them pikes and then had them do

these kinds of weird word things where

you say you smell bad and pleasant tone

of voice or it didn’t match up and ask

them what the person was saying people

are a lot of more emotionally in tune

when they’d been outside we had those

workers work in teams outside

they laughed twice as much they

collaborated more they came to solutions

faster and the team was happier with

those solutions than the people that

were in the office environments I think

that part of the reason for this is

because our phones are making us a

little dumb and a little insensitive the

other doctor actually thinks that it’s

probably because nature is a really

pleasant place to be and it’s good for

your brain and the real answer is

probably someplace in the middle but you

know I think middles okay in an era that

I’d loved to how tank said you know it

wasn’t your social network outside and

one day in an era where our social

network used to be outside where four

generations ago a child might play in a

very large area of space and over time

with subsequent generations that area’s

space is shrunk down to a very small

region maybe going back outside is

something we all need attention is a

gift that you give to yourself and it’s

a gift that you give to people around

you and I appreciate the attention that

you have given me here today thank you

very much [Applause]

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