Distracted Driving – How Your Brain May Kill You On The Road

Paul Atchley has done extensive research on how the brain works and how being distracted on the road due to Smartphones has literally become a fatal pandemic.

Paul Atchley - TEDx Talk - Distraction is Literally Killing Us

The Neurological Nature of Distraction
To all who think they are great at multitasking: the truth about the human brain is that it can’t do everything all at once.

When we focus one task, blood flow moves to specific areas of the brain and activity increases in these areas.

If we try to focus on two things at once, different areas of the brain are required. This causes a splitting of attention and a distraction, resulting in a lesser capacity in each task. On the road, this difference can translate into a full-on accident with potential fatalities.

Furthermore, the brain cannot focus on more than four objects at one time.

This applies to driving on the road too. You tend to spend more time focusing on the most important objects in front of you, ignoring the rest.

That is assuming you are not lost in deep thought.

If you are more focused on your thoughts, you will be aware of less in your environment. This is because your mind can only focus on so much at one time.

When lost in deep thought, more of the activity in your brain is spent focusing on those thoughts, and less attention is placed on the outside environment. Being distracted by anything from our cell phones to our very thoughts can cause accidents on the road.

However, it’s not to say distraction in itself is harmful.

If we were not able to be distracted, we would not be able to adapt to our environment. Another way of looking at it is that if a person did not distract you from driving as they walked across the road, you would not react by stopping, but would carry on driving.

Distraction is like a hard-wired program that comes built into our brains operating systems, and we ought to learn how to work with it to prevent accidents from happening.

How Smart Phones Are Built To Captivate Us
From the bottom up, a smartphone is built to steal our attention away.
1. Auditory & Visual Input
You’re driving down the road, and your phone rings. You look down momentarily to see who is calling you. The next moment you look up and you get a shock as you slam down on the breaks – there is suddenly a pedestrian that you didn’t see who is crossing the street!

What happened while you were getting distracted by your phone?

Auditory input is one of the biggest distractions, forcing your brain to process it in different regions and take attention away from the task at hand[1]The cognitive neuroscience of auditory distraction

When the phone made a sound, your brain automatically spent less of its capacity on processing the sensory input of the road. Some of your brain’s output was diverted to decoding the sounds made by your phone.

The lights on your phones screen also flash, which grabs your attention in a visual manner.

This visual distraction is enough to cause an accident on the road, depending on the moment one looks away from the road to notice it.

In the case of these two distractions, working memory appears to give us control over what we choose to focus on[2]Working Memory Controls Involuntary Attention Switching: Evidence From An Auditory Distraction Paradigm.

Working memory is impaired under certain circumstances, including emotional interference[3]Brain Systems Mediating Cognitive Interference by Emotional Distraction, stress, sugar consumption and Dopamine release.

2. Dopamine Release & Addiction
The primary function of a cell phone is to communicate.

Socializing and communicating with others releases dopamine in our brains.

The release of dopamine triggers the reward pathways in the brain, which makes us feel good. This is a mechanism that is used to get us to repeat beneficial behavioral patterns, such as achieving a goal or completing a task.

In other words, our phones are especially distracting, as the auditory and visual input is associated in our brains with the anticipation of dopamine or reward.

Similarly, in the case of many drugs (like nicotine, alcohol or cocaine), this drive for dopamine compels us to indulge in these behaviors and reap the “rewards” incurred by them.

Dopamine release interferes with our ability to logically reason, impacting on our ability to make rational decisions.

This is even more prominent if the drive is charged with an emotion, like love.

Emotional interference works to impair the working memory further and prevents you from having control over choosing where your attention goes.

On the road, this translates to making your phone a nearly irresistible distraction that is rather dangerous to yourself and others around you.

5 Ways To Remain More Attentive & Less Distracted on the Road
While your brain is limited in the amount that it can focus on at one time, there are methods to improve it’s ability to selectively focus.
1. Raising Your GABA Levels
GABA is a neurotransmitter which is responsible for preventing over-stimulation of the neurons in the brain.

It does this by inhibiting anything that causes over-stimulation, such as Dopamine.

The anticipation of Dopamine can give us a feeling of nervous tension or excitement, which drives us to it. When we crave reward and are deprived of a “dopamine fix,” we can experience withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety.

When one feels the effects of GABA in the system, one feels entirely relaxed and the need for reward falls away. GABA has been proven to remove social anxiety in particular, which would allow it to nullify your need to answer your phone while driving.

NOTE: common supplements for increasing GABA cause substance dependence in the long run and multiple negative side effects.

Instead, there are many foods you can eat to boost GABA in your system. The following herbs will do just that:

  • Lemon Balm
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Mint
  • Jasmine
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Green Tea
You can also take pure GABA in supplemental form, especially if you suffer from chronic anxiety.

Lastly, exercise and meditation both have been proven to increase levels of GABA in the brain.

2. Finding Dopamine Elsewhere
If your brain was not feeling deprived of Dopamine, it would not trick you into getting more.

With this in mind, getting a dopamine spike elsewhere will help to prevent you from needing to consult your facebook page in the middle of rush hour. You will already have the feeling you are seeking for.

There are many ways you can increase your natural dopamine levels without giving into controlling addictive tendencies. All the same methods for increasing dopamine essentially help to fight off depression too!

All of these activities promote the release of dopamine in the brain naturally:

  • Listen to Good Music.
  • Exercise Regularly.
  • Meditate.
  • Spend time in nature and under the sun.
  • Avoid sugar, starch, processed foods and saturated fats.
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet rich with a variety of vegetables, spices, herbs and healthy fats.

Foods & Supplements For Enhanced Dopamine

The monounsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil prevent levels of dopamine in the brain from decreasing.
Green Tea contains theanine and caffeine, both of which also stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain.
Turmeric and multiple other herbs and spices all promote dopamine production. These capsules contain high amounts of curcumin, which is the active ingredient found in turmeric.

Folate, magnesium, theanine and tyrosine are all dopaminergic supplements that are needed by the brain to create dopamine.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids from fish oil were also shown to improve upon dopamine in the brain.

If you can’t get good quality wild or fresh fish, get yourself an Omega-3 fish oil supplement.

The Omega-3 by Nordic Naturals is:
– High in content of DHA and EPA.
– Manufactured in an oxygen-free environment that makes sure to keep it from getting rancid or oxygenated.

3. Spending Time In Nature
Spending time in nature makes one feel relaxed and happy, allowing for the release of dopamine without needing anything outside of ourselves.

As Atchley also accurately reports, spending time in nature improves focus and attention span, which is necessary for avoiding unnecessary distractions.

4. Using An App While Driving
In response to the level of distraction on the road, technicians have created apps which bar people from using their phones in multiple ingenious ways.

If you struggle with distracted driving, an app is a sure way to take charge of your attention.

5. Practicing Mindfulness Meditation
It has been known for ages that mindfulness meditation enhances our ability to focus.

This is because when you meditate successfully, you manage to still your mind, allowing yourself to focus on the tasks at hand fully.

In those who meditate on a daily basis, meditation was proven to increase the production of both dopamine and GABA in the brain.

Learn how to still your mind and be more aware on the road with the art of mindfulness meditation!

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