Is it safer driving with music?

By June 18, 2017Science

Researchers from the Australian National University and Monash University have determined that listening to music decreased inattentional blindness1. Inattentional blindness is also known as perceptual blindness, and is a psychological term referring to a lack of attention that is not associated with any defects or deficits of vision. It is commonly defined as an event whereby an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight. It tends to be caused essentially by an overload of stimuli in a given situation, such that a temporary blindness effect can occur2.

The most famous study which demonstrated this phenomenon contained a busy scene in which 6 people were passing around two basketballs. Before the task started, participants were asked how many times people dressed in white tops passed a basketball. To count these you had to concentrate hard. While this passing the basketball was happening, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the middle of the scene, and after the pass counting was concluded, participants were asked if they had noticed the gorilla. Almost half of the participants had not noticed it3.

Previous research had indicated that listening to music can reduce failures of conscious awareness (i.e. being aware of our feelings, thoughts and sensations)4, so Beanland et al. (2011) attempted to investigate how auditory attention affects inattentional blindness. They found that listening to an auditory stimulus (e.g. music) while performing a visual task can actually improve visual awareness. Specifically, listening “to lyrical music increases the likelihood that an observer will detect an unexpected stimulus”. They suggested that “music may facilitate stimulus detection by distracting observers from the visual task and thereby distributing attention more broadly”. They therefore suggested that listening to music “while driving may not be as hazardous as once thought”1.


  1. Beanland, V., Allen, R.A. & Pammer, K., 2011. Attending to music decreases inattentional blindness. Consciousness and Cognition 20, 1282-1292.
  3. Simons, D.J. & Chabris, C.F., 1999. Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception 28, 1059-1074.


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