Most of us have been there. You’re driving your car along a familiar route and are listening to the radio. Before you know it you arrive at your destination but have no clear memory of the lefts and rights you took to get there. You do, however, remember what you heard on the radio.
Research done at the Wisconsin Center for Sleep and Consciousness now provides an explanation for that. The research team put 13 volunteers in a driving simulator while images of their brains were created using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.
The drivers navigated a very simple course on the simulator while listening to directions from a GPS device.
“When the subjects were driving and listening to the GPS at the same time the parts of their brains involving driving and in listening were communicating a lot. They were changing activity over time in a very synchronized way,” said Dr. Melanie Boly, a member of the research team.
The results changed, however, when the subjects listened to a radio while driving in the simulator.
“Then actually the two parts of the brain were completely separate. The part of the brain that was involved in listening to the radio show was not communicating anymore with the part involved in driving, like a split into two different systems,” Boly said.
Dr. Giulio Tononi, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Sleep and Consciousness, is the lead researcher.
“It seems, at times, the healthy brain can function wholly split into two parts,” Tononi said. “This temporary split may resemble, to some extent, what happens after epilepsy patients have surgery to disconnect the two hemispheres to relieve seizures. The surgically disconnected brain is able to manage two separate streams of consciousness, one per hemisphere.”
While the research shows the brain's ability to perform split activities it does not lessen the dangers that come with distracted driving. Extensive studies have shown distracted driving to be extremely dangerous.
“This shouldn’t be taken as an incentive to drive or do something else at the same time,” Boly said.
The findings of the UW Health study will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.