If I’m listening to a podcast while driving, am I doing two things at once?
Hooked on your favourite podcast? Fear not, listening to the radio or a podcast is a passive activity, which should leave more mental capacity for driving.
Asked by: Tom Obermeier, via email
Listening to a podcast is usually a passive enough activity that it leaves ample mental resources for you to do other things at the same time, including driving. This contrasts with when you’re performing two tasks that are both mentally demanding – having a conversation while driving, for instance. In this case, both tasks require all (or nearly all) of your mental resources, so you are switching back and forth between the two, and probably doing both badly.
Many studies have shown that, whereas conducting a phone conversation (even hands-free) has a detrimental effect on drivers’ performance, listening to the radio does not. And when the driving does get more demanding – perhaps the traffic gets heavy – a University of Groningen study showed that drivers naturally disengage from or block out the radio or podcast to focus more on driving.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.