Cell Phone Radiation Slows Reaction Time, Improves Memory

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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

Talking on the cell phone while you’re driving a car is not a great idea. Doing so divides your attention into two parts (1) watching the road for problems, and (2) listening to the conversation and thinking of what you’ll say next. We know from years of cognitive psychology research that dividing attention on tasks generally degrades performance on those tasks. Dividing attention while driving takes your attention away from driving, which can have life-threatening results. Numerous cell-phone related accidents have prompted many states to ban driving while using the things.

Now, researchers in Australia look to have discovered another reason why driving and dialing is a bad idea. (see http://www.optusnet.com.au/story/abc/20060426/09/tech/1623464.inp) It seems that the radiation from cell phones actually excerts a small but real short-term effect on brain activity, reducing the brain’s general reaction time abilities. In effect, talking on the cell phone appears to change your brain, making you respond slower than normal.


Following well established laborartory procedure, Dr. Con Stough, director of the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, and his colleagues divided study participants into experiental and control groups, and then exposed the experimental group to cell-phone equivalent amounts of electromagnetic radiation (e.g., radio waves). The control group got treated similarly, except they did not receive any actual radiation. After exposure, both groups of participants sat for neuropsychological examinations which measured their brain functioning through indirect measurements of mental performance: memory, attention, reaction time, etc. Statistical examination of the neuropsychological data revealed that the radiation-exposed group showed a slight impairment in terms of reaction time responding, and also, a slight memory benefit.

Impaired reaction time would be a very bad thing if you were driving; you would take longer than normal to step on the breaks in an emergency, for example. Such a time delay might be the difference between avoiding an accident and participating in one. What is facinating here is how this reaction time effect attributable to cell phones is independent of the divided attention problem already mentioned. If you use a cell phone while driving, you are apparently setting yourself up for a double wammy of attention problems: the divided attention effect will distract you AND the radiation effect may very well slow you down. Put the two together and you have a good set of reasons for why you shouldn’t use the phone while driving! Or, for that matter, while operating any heavy machinery.

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