You’re speeding to the mall, sipping on an orange mocha frappuccino and singing along to Olivia Rodrigo. You reach the parking lot, put down your beverage and almost instinctively turn down the volume. It’s time to focus on finding a spot for your car.
But why must Olivia be silenced so that you can locate the perfect place to park?
The explanation is fairly straightforward. Under normal circumstances, listening to music while driving is a form of multitasking, explains cognitive scientist Art Markman, author of Brain Briefs. “That’s actually not terrible, because driving frankly isn’t that hard,” he says. “It doesn’t occupy our full mental resources.” In fact, some research suggests that music can help you keep up with the flow of traffic under ordinary conditions.
But as Markman explains, your brain isn’t multitasking in the sense that it’s listening to music and focusing on the road simultaneously. “What it really does is flip back and forth between the two things you’re doing,” he says. This is why listening to music while driving is easier than talking on the phone — you won’t necessarily even notice if you miss a few seconds of a song, but you’ll have trouble maintaining a conversation if you’re navigating through a series of busy intersections.
In most instances, this isn’t an issue. Your brain seamlessly and constantly transitions between listening and driving, and it’s able to do so without causing you to crash. But when something that requires more attention than simply coasting along comes up — say, a car crash up ahead, or to use our earlier example, needing to find a parking spot — your brain no longer has the capacity to swap back and forth. It has to focus on one or the other. So in order to fixate on the more demanding situation, you turn down the radio. “If it starts pouring rain, you’ll turn the radio down, too,” Markman adds.
If you don’t phase out the distraction (music, a conversation, your orange mocha frappuccino), you simply won’t be able to perform as well, and your brain may even begin to stutter, as cognitive scientist John Bargh explains in his book, Before You Know It:
I had come home from New York to visit my family up in northern Michigan and my mom had picked me up at the airport. While I was driving the 45 miles on local roads to our cabin, she was filling me in on all the family news. I remember being very engrossed in all that she was telling me. But suddenly she went completely silent and looked over at me quizzically. ‘You do realize you’ve completely stopped, don’t you?’ And there we were, in the middle of the state highway M-72, slowed down to almost a complete standstill.
Put simply, Bargh’s brain was too focused on his mom’s words, so it quit flipping back to driving altogether. The same could happen to you if you try searching for a parking spot while cranking “good 4 u” at full volume: You’ll end up stalled in the middle of the parking lot with five cars honking behind you, because your brain couldn’t park and listen at the same time.
But don’t worry — you can safely turn it right back on once you find that perfect spot.