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Texting pedestrians exhibit "zombie-like" behaviour, say Montreal researchers

A new study presented by researchers from the Tech3Lab at HEC Montreal, along with the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychology and the Centre hospitalier Notre-Dame has found that “Texting while walking is a widespread and dangerous behaviour.”
In a research presentation called “Mobile Multitasking Distraction: A Pilot Study with Intracranial Electroencephalography”, researchers attempted to determine which neural circuitry is implicated in the act of texting while walking, with the aim of helping to develop future methods of mitigating “this dangerous habit” and perhaps to “assist the development of mobile applications aiming directly at the neural circuitry”.
While online marketers search for ways to increase user “engagement” with smartphones, it’s precisely this engagement that puts people who walk and text at the same time at greatest risk.
“You could say that they’re in a zombie-like state,” said HEC researcher Pierre-Majorique Léger to Radio-Canada. “People are completely concentrated on their device, but blind to their external environment. They’re like zombies.”
The combination of walking and fine motor skills with the simultaneous usage of a mobile device limits people’s decision making capacity, says the researcher, with chances for accuracy in the decision making process decreasing 18.9% in the study.
Presented at the 2016 Retreat on NeuroIS in Gmunden, Austria in June, the report is the first of its kind that the researchers know of that applies intracranial electroencephalography (EEG), also known as electrocorticography (ECoG), to the study of texting while walking.
NeuroIS is an emerging subfield within the Information Systems discipline that makes use of neuroscience and neurophysiological tools and knowledge to better understand the development, use, and impact of information and communication technologies.
“Injury reports related to MMt [mobile multitasking] are becoming more important every year and are likely to keep increasing given the constantly growing use of smart phones,” write the researchers. “While public safety research shows that mobile multitaskers are more cognitively distracted than non-mobile users, our team’s recent work specifically measured this distraction using electroencephalography (EEG).”
Unlike EEG probes placed outside the scalp, the researchers’ ECoG technique placed the probes directly on participants’ grey matter, using patients already hospitalized at Notre-Dame, with each participant implanted with 128 electrodes in and around his or her temporal lobes.
Participants in the study then walked on a treadmill and were asked to discriminate the orientation of an oncoming human shape, with some of the participants asked to do this while texting on a smartphone.
Activity in their brain was recorded by EEG during the moment when the focus of each participant’s engagement had to shift from one focus to another.
The study attempted to quantify the “task switching cost” of shifting each subject’s focus of engagement and determined that the subject’s reaction time was significant enough to constitute a health hazard.
Earlier this week, a Quebec coroner’s report recommended a complete ban on the use of cell phones while driving, after the death of a 75-year-old woman in Kamouraska who was struck while walking by a distracted driver.

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