Why Do We Turn Down the Radio When We're Lost?

In 1930, the Radio Manufacturers Association lobbied that backseat passengers were more of a driver distraction than a car radio. Listening to the radio, they claimed, was safer than looking in the rear-view mirror. Some strongly opposed the industry’s claim, arguing that car radios were not only distracting, but hazardous. It wasn’t until 1939 that it was determined that car radios played little to no role in car accidents. On the contrary, studies have found that listening to music in the car helps drivers stay focused on the road. So why, then, are we obsessed with turning down the radio when it comes time to look for an exit sign or when we approach an unfamiliar location? It turns out that it has to do with the limitations of the human brain. The brain has three parts: the cerebrum — the part that controls cognitive functions like language and emotion; the cerebellum — which controls muscle movement and balance; and the brainstem — which controls the body’s automatic functions like breathing. When the brain switches its focus and attention from one task to another, it’s fast but not instantaneous. Those fractions of a second spent toggling may slow down your performance. When you’re lost, that could mean the difference between seeing or not seeing the sign alerting you to the exit you need to take. People often turn down the radio when driving in crowded areas, looking for a specific address, or driving in dangerous conditions such as rain because those activities require more concentration than during a typical drive. Turning the radio down or off eliminates a task from the brain's to-do list, shifting its focus to the most important task: finding the way.