Warning: Distracted Pedestrians Ahead

John Anderson

John Anderson, PhD student, Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest

I read stories in the media recently about a new public awareness campaign the Toronto police have launched, called Heads Up! Distraction Can Be Fatal. It’s aimed at a new risk group – distracted pedestrians. It’s a common a sight to see people walking on busy streets and other public spaces while thoroughly engrossed in their electronic devices. The growing number of pedestrians injured or killed while texting, talking, checking emails, or listening to music with their earbuds, underscores a finding that psychologists and neuroscientists have known for decades – people cannot manage simultaneous challenging tasks effectively.

When it comes to multitasking, there are two main theories dominating attention literature. An early theory suggested that people can split their attention and devote an equal share to each task.  This has since been replaced by the “task-switching” perspective which suggests one task dominates a person’s attention almost completely until they “switch” to another. One might think of attention in this case as being a powerful beam of light that jumps back and forth between two objects, each of which can be illuminated separately, but not together. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Some people born without a connection between the two halves of their brain have shown a remarkable ability to process the right and left side of their visual fields separately. One such individual, the savant Kim Peek, was reputed to be able to read two pages from a book simultaneously with each of his eyes independently scanning a single page. Most of us, however, are not capable of this.

It is true that certain tasks, such as walking, can become “automatic” and not require as much effortful attention once started. This explains why people can walk, talk and text simultaneously – most times without incident. Walking is generally not that demanding on our attention system.  This is well and good unless unforeseen obstacles suddenly appear in our path that cannot be handled automatically.

When startled, most mammals (including humans) activate what is known as the orienting reflex.  Their entire bodies shift to alert them to the perceived threat. This reflex is designed to provide enough time (albeit a second or two) to avoid danger. Unfortunately we have become desensitized to cars, bicycles and other potential pitfalls in our cityscapes and they no longer register as potentially dangerous stimuli. This means that when pedestrians finally switch their attention from their electronics and realize their predicament – the pot hole ahead, the car racing through a yellow light – it may well be too late. Ironically, distraction may have a silver lining for some. The people with the greatest risk for distraction (for example seniors or those with attention deficit disorder), are the least likely to be fully engrossed by any one task and most likely to notice potential danger!

John Anderson is a PhD student at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the University of Toronto, and is co-supervised by RRI senior scientists Drs. Cheryl Grady and Lynn Hasher. His research with these scientists includes the cognitive control of attention (and distraction) and how time of day and circadian preference affects cognition and brain networks.