I recently saw someone walk into a signpost (amazingly, one that signalled ‘caution pedestrians’); by the angle and magnitude that his body rebounded, I estimated that this probably really hurt. What I had witnessed was a danger of walking under the influence of a smart phone. Because this man lacked the ability to tweet and simultaneously attend to and process the peripheral visual information that would enable him to avoid posts, the sidewalk was a dangerous place. If only there existed some way to enhance this cognitive ability, the sidewalks would be safer for multi-taskers (though less entertaining for bystanders).
In a public event on neurogaming held last Friday as part of the annual meeting of the International Society for Neuroethics, Adam Gazzaley from UCSF described a method that may lead to just the type of cognitive enhancement this man needed. In a recent paper published in nature, his team showed that sustained training at a game called NeuroRacer can effectively enhance the ability of elderly individuals to attend to and process peripheral visual information. While this game has a way to go before it can improve pedestrian safety, it does raise interesting questions about the future of our regulations surrounding distracted driving, e.g., driving while texting. In many jurisdictions, we prohibit texting while driving, and a California court recently ruled to extend these regulations to prohibit certain instances of driving under the influence of smart phones (i.e. smart driving).
But if individuals were to train on a descendant of NeuroRacer and improve their ability to visually multitask, should we give them a permit to text while driving?
Emerging neuroscience research is increasingly supporting the idea that we pay a cognitive cost for multitasking. Successfully operating a car already involves a lot of multitasking, e.g. integrating peripheral visual information while maintaining a sense of direction, speed, and awareness of the behavior of other drivers, and doing so while using a smart phone or texting takes the cognitive load to an extreme. This level of distraction, the argument goes, can be dangerous both for the driver and the public.
One way to lessen this danger is to prohibit that type of riskier driving. Another is to reduce the risk by enhancing the ability to drive in that sort of situation. Examples abound of types of driving that would otherwise be very dangerous (and candidates for prohibition) but are permitted as long as the person enhances her ability to drive under those conditions. Considered alone, driving in the pitch dark is very dangerous. However, we might think it reasonable to permit a person to drive at night if she enhances her night-vision by using headlights. Or we might permit those with poor baseline visual acuity to drive if they enhance with proper prescription glasses.
With the possibility of enhancing one’s ability to attend to and process peripheral visual information effectively, we should also consider this method of reducing risk as an alternative to distracted-driving laws. We could have an opt-in policy where drivers qualify for a text-driving permit by showing that their abilities to perform in a driving simulation (like NeuroRacer) while being distracted are within the normal range of ability of undistracted, untrained individuals. It is important to remember, moreover, that we need not minimize or eliminate risk to the public, but merely reduce it below an acceptable threshold; we permit people with a range of driving competencies to drive and driving itself poses risk to the public.
As technologies increasingly allow us to modulate the risks our behaviors pose to others, however, what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ threshold will become more quantitative and controversial.