Recent research has suggested that driving while conversing on a cell phone is more dangerous than doing so while speaking with passengers. The researchers suggest that passengers, by paying attention to conditions on the road, help drivers to pay attention at critical moments, thus mitigating the distractions that conversations cause. This seems reasonable. I would like to suggest an additional reason that phone conversations are distracting: humans’ ability and tendency to imagine the world through others’ eyes.
Another line of recent research has focused on “mirror neurons” in humans and other primates. These neurons, or networks thereof, fire similarly whether an individual performs a particular action or observes someone else performing it. That is, were I to observe you opening a jar, the same subset of these neurons would activate as if I were opening the jar. However, researchers are beginning to delve into an obvious complication: we identify with some things and types of actions more than with others. This makes our mirror neurons more likely to “mirror” some people’s actions more than others’.
The third piece of the puzzle is that imagining a scene triggers neurological processes similar to observing it with our eyes. Particularly vivid fantasies can result in significant changes throughout our bodies. For example, I used to drift off to sleep thinking about playing basketball; many nights, on the border of sleep, I would unwittingly hit my partner as I moved my arms to make a pass, and I would awaken with a pounding heart.
So, back to driving: drivers talking on cell phones, handless or not, will imagine themselves to be in the presence of their conversational partner. The closer they feel to their partner, the more deeply they will imagine this displaced scene. Perhaps they see their partner’s face, but perhaps, their mirror neurons firing, they also imagine what the conversant is seeing and doing. For example, imagining my mother’s experience in her house will certainly distract me from driving. Conversely, drivers speaking with passengers are more likely to imagine what the passenger sees – the road ahead. (Passengers watching movies are another story.)
The obvious moral is to avoid speaking on the cell phone while driving. If you insist on doing so, at least monitor your attention so that you do not displace your mind’s eye into someone else’s head.