Student’s science project is a multitasker’s reality check

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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We all know distracted driving is a problem - but what actually goes on in the brain when you’re “multitasking’’ behind the wheel?

Well, as 17-year-old Nathan Sprenkle of Hamilton discovered in an experiment that was recently named a semifinalist in the 2011 Google Science Fair, not all distractions are created equal.

In a six-minute online test designed by the Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School senior, users guide an object along a track - correcting for speed and lane position just as they would while driving - as they are interrupted by classical music and a barrage of questions dealing with math, memory, visualization, and categorization (i.e., What is the sum of 5, 6, 1, and 2? What is the first place you remember living? What do a cucumber, a leaf, and an emerald have in common?).

By jumping between different subjects, the aim was to trigger different parts of the brain, Sprenkle explained.

The result: Questions provided widely varying levels of impairment. Specifically, those dealing with categorizing and visualizing had the most impact, resulting in a 32.9 percent and 24.5 percent increase, respectively, in error over the subject’s baseline, or how they “drove’’ with no distractions.

This is because both brain functions (which, depending on the actual task, can activate the occipital, parietal, or temporal lobes) are highly used in the task of driving. For example, categorizing is used for gauging speed or selecting an exit number, while visualizing could be used to recall a specific route or area on a map, Sprenkle said. Thus, “adding a distraction that uses these parts of the brain causes overload and faltering,’’ said Sprenkle, a self-professed “computer geek,’’ who designed the program over roughly two months.

Meanwhile, questions dealing with math and memory (which largely activate the frontal lobe) had less impact on driving ability, while listening to music had almost no effect.

“Different things distract us differently,’’ said Sprenkle, “although they all do distract us in some degree.’’

Yet the test also suggested that people are largely oblivious to these effects, although subjects knew they had “driven’’ badly, they had no idea which distractions had impaired them the most.

So, Sprenkle surmised, when you see drivers on phones, swerving from lane to lane, “there is a good chance they think their driving is fine.’’

Even so, cellphone calls are random in topic, so to tell someone to engage in conversations that are math or memory-related because they’ll be less distracting is “outlandish and impossibly difficult,’’ he said.

Instead, he suggested that people limit the number of tasks, and also their complexity and difficulty, while driving (or while doing any type of multitasking). And if it is necessary to be distracted by something like a cellphone conversation, try to keep the subject matter simple, he advised.

“Focus first and foremost on the most important task at hand - driving,’’ he said.

Sprenkle’s test was used on more than 150 subjects. He was named one of 60 semifinalists out of 7,500 in the Google Science Fair, although he did not ultimately advance to the finals in early July.