Doubly cool, cell phones strain brain

July 26, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Dear motorist: If you like to drive while chattering on your cell phone, it may be time to pull over to finish that conversation.

Or, at least, think twice. According to some new studies, you would have to think at least twice, or maybe three or four times, to make up for the useful brain power that cell-phone conversations drain out of your brain, whether you use a hands-free device or not.

A study of Australian highway crashes published recently in the British Medical Journal found that drivers yakking on cell phones are four times more likely to be involved in a serious crash, regardless of whether the drivers were talking on a hand-held or hands-free device.

Researchers for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted the study, which is the first to link actual accident data in Western Australia with phone records.

Closer to home, brain-imaging tests done at the Johns Hopkins University found that, even with a hands-free device, cell-phone use forces the brain to redirect its resources to what it hears and drains resources away from the visual task of driving.

Or, as Steven Yantis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences, described it when he announced the test results in late June, "Directing attention to listening effectively turns down the volume on input to the visual parts of the brain."

That must come as harsh news to lawmakers in New York and New Jersey, Chicago, Washington and Santa Fe. These places have all banned the use of hand-held phones by drivers.

Although more study needs to be done before more cell-phone laws are changed, the results so far tend to confirm a position that some communications theorists have argued for years: The most powerful communications medium is not television, radio or newspapers; it is the cell phone.

The late media guru Marshall McLuhan labeled the visual media like TV and newspapers the "cool" media because they demand our undivided attention much more than radio or music players.

By Mr. McLuhan's standard, the phone is extra potent. It not only provides the "theater of the mind" that radio broadcasters like to boast about, but it also compels us to talk back.

"The phone is a doubly cool medium," said professor Paul Levinson, chair of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "On our cell phones, we are not just listening, but talking and conversing. Our eyes tend to zoom in on one thing at a time. Our ears are built for multitasking. Because of that, telephones may engage us more than any other medium."

Indeed, the cell phone is special. It rings, and we feel compelled to answer it. Its sound quality is low, so we feel compelled to shout even louder. It deludes us into thinking that we are someplace else, conversing in private, so we reveal secrets out loud to strangers in public; secrets that, had we our wits about us, we would not want to tell our own mothers.

We can see that in some of the goofy scenes that cell-phone life has offered us. For example, the well-dressed, young professional woman who seems to be talking and gesturing to no one in particular, until you realize that she is talking on a hands-free cell phone.

Or the highly wired lawyer on a high-speed train from Manhattan to Washington blabbing his firm's private business over his cell phone for everyone in the train car to hear.

I have witnessed each of these modern urban creatures. As cell-phone use continues to grow, I expect to see more of them - although, I hope, not behind the wheel.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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