Driven to Distraction by Language While Driving


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Distracted driving can lead to accidents. Image by Adrian McGarry.

Some people claim that multi-tasking is easy, but performing two cognitive tasks simultaneously – especially when language is involved – is not so simple. This is especially true if both tasks demand certain mental functions, particularly those connected to attention and certain types of memory.

Translating Language to Action

While in graduate school, cognitive scientist, Professor Benjamin Bergen, now a faculty Member of the University of California, San Diego, was part of a research group trying to build artificial intelligence systems that could translate from language to action-that could allow a person to give instructions in plain English to a robot or virtual agent that the software could decode.

In order to do this, the computer scientists in Bergen’s group realized that the artificial intelligence had to have the ability to plan action, just as humans do. This led Bergen and colleagues  to think that perhaps being able to simulate actions was also something that people do in understanding language. It turned out that at the same time, there were cognitive psychologists and neuro-scientists pursuing the same idea in other labs.

Language Topics can Activate Perceptual and Motor Skills

Years of research showed that when people use language about actions or visible objects and events, they also use their motor and perceptual systems in ways that reflect the actions and percepts referred to in the language content.

Using language and driving a vehicle activate different perceptual and motor skills, however, and Bergen reasoned that the additional mental operations used for understanding language could mean that processing language while operating a car might cause a  mental overload and interfere with driving performance. To test this, Bergen and his researchers had participants drive a simulated vehicle while simultaneously answering true–false statements that had motor, visual, or abstract content.

Decoded Science took the opportunity to discuss the findings of this research with Professor Bergen.

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