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By the age of 21, many Americans have had obtained their licenses and some

have had many years of driving experience. However, many of us take driving for

granted. For many people driving is an automated procedural task that we just do, not

realizing the amount attention it takes to safely operate the 4000 pounds of metal down a

highway. Driving not only requires the control over limb muscle movement, it also

requires fine control over muscles in coordination with visual and auditory input. The

coordination of such motor tasks requires cognitive attention and imposes a cognitive

load on working memory, the distribution of attention among various sub-tasks involved

in. While a basal cognitive load level leads to peak performance, too much or too little

significantly decreases performance and may be detrimental in certain situations. As an

example of cognitive overload, Green (2000) found that cell phone and navigation system

usage correlates with increase injuries from automobile collisions. Because in-car devices

have been shown to play a role in cognitive load (Jamson, Westerman, Hockey, &

Carsten, 2004; Lee, Lee, and Boyle, 2007; Rakauskas, Gugerty, & Ward, 2004), it is vital

to learn more about the relationship between cognitive load and driving.

Literature Review

A. Cognitive Load Theory

In order to understand the basis of cognitive load theory, this paper will first focus

on the acquisition and storage of memory based on Atkinson-Shiffrin Modal Model of

Memory (MM). As seen in Fig. 1, information first comes in the form of experiences

acquired by the sensory system from the surrounding environment. While sensory

memory has a large store, duration is very short, and any information that the person does

not attend to will be lost. Information attended to transfers these experiences into short-
term or working memory store. Working memory has a short duration before decay

occurs along with a limited capacity that varies from one person to the next (Cowan,

2005). Information that is not lost or forgotten will eventually be encoded into long-term

memory. The model is inadequate in accounting for the complexities associated with

storing the elements experienced in everyday life within such a small short-term memory

as suggested by Cox (2001). Even with the ability to chunk information, the ability to

integrate all the visual experience in environmental interactions would take a tremendous

amount of work. In light of this and other criticism, the Baddeley and Hitch multi-store

working memory (WM) model was proposed (Cox, 2001).

Baddeley and Hitch illustrated that the so called passive short-term storage is

actually an active process in which the mind temporarily stores information (Figure 2)

(Cox 2001). Composed of a central executive (CE) system which controls the

maintenance of memories, the CE also has control of three slave systems called the

visuo-spatial notepad, phonological loop, and the episodic buffer (Baddeley, 2007). The

visuo-spatial notepad is responsible for the visual inputs as well as the coding of the

spatial layout of an episodic experience (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, 2007).

The phonological loop resembles a CD in loop mode, allowing for rehearsal of

information (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, 2007). Finally, the episode buffer

allows for the integration of these other “sensory” based information store into a sensible

episode (Baddeley, 2000). The Atkinson-Shiffrin MM along with Baddeley and Hitch

(1974) WM model has become the basis for the development of the Cognitive Load (CT)

theory (Baddeley, 2007; Gerjets and Scheiter, 2003).

First constructed in 1988 by John Sweller, CT theory suggests that the mind

compensates for the capacity of working memory through categorization of elements in

what is termed schemas. For example, we can remember a german shepherd, a golden

retriever, or a bulldog. These would be in essence three different elements within the

working memory. Consequently, one can imagine how fast the working memory would

be overloaded before it can even process this information. In determining similar features

in everyday objects (e.g. all three of the named dogs have four legs, bark, and have a tail),

we would categorize the german shepherd, a golden retriever, or a bulldog as schema

called dogs, rather than individual elements. It is through these schemas that the brain is

able to quickly and efficiently process information. From this theory came a vast area of

research in the field education and psychology looking at learning and memory. In this

particular study, we are interested in the phenomena called cognitive overload.

B. Cognitive overload

The basic mechanisms by which a computer operates includes a hard drive where

all data are stored, a component that is comparable to our long-term storage. Of more

interest is the computer’s memory, which governs the capacity at which the computer can

multitask, a component similar to the working memory. To many people’s dismay,

multitasking on computer has its limit. A computer has a limited amount of memory and

therefore, running too many applications and programs slows down the computer or in

some case a frozen computer.

Similarly, this technical difficulty also occurs within the working memory. When

the amount of information coming into working memory exceeds the capacity of the
working memory itself, cognitive overload occurs as the brain loses its function to

process information.

Though widely used in the context of learning and memory research, there is also

a great amount of literature researching the relationship between driving and cognitive

load (Liang, 2009; Grimm et al., 2007; Riener, Ferscha, Mohamed, 2009; Green, 2000).

Driving and cognitive load studies typically assign simulated driving to be the primary

task in which participants focuses on along with another task to replicate driving

distracters. These “secondary distracter tasks” typically range from trivia verbal response

tasks to spatial recognition tasks. Though these studies have found evidence for increased

cognitive load in correlation with decreased driving performance in using these

secondary distracter tasks, the results have been dependent on the mode of the secondary

distracter (Young and Stanton, 2007). The debate that has risen from this is whether

cognitive processing within working memory operates through a multiple resource model

or a unitary resource model. Similar to Baddeley and Hitch’s WM model, Wicken’s

(1984) multiple resource model suggests that working memory has a multiple sources

that can process information. Therefore, if the mode of the secondary task is similar to

the mode of the primary task, cognitive overload may occur as a result of both tasks uses

the same resource. However, if the secondary tasks were to differ from the primary task

(the use of visual and auditory as opposed to visual and spatial), cognitive overload does

not occur because the two tasks uses two different cognitive processing resource. The

unitary resource model on the other hand, suggests that all forms of cognitive processing

draws from a single pool of attention, therefore cognitive overload occurs from

informational/task overload.
C. Heart Rate Variability and Cognitive Load

Though early research used behavioral responses as measures of cognitive load,

recent studies have found that arousal as measured by heart rate variability (HRV) to be an

effective measure of cognitive load (Gershon, Ronen, Oron-Gilad, and Shinar, 2009;

Riener, Ferscha, and Mohamed, 2009). Heart rate variability utilizes the patterns of the

time between two heart beats, the interbeat interval, as measures of the autonomic nervous

system. Varying IBI, which corresponds to a high frequency (HF), is an indication for

parasympathetic activity. A consistent metronome-like IBI, which corresponds to a low

frequency (LF), indicates sympathetic activity (Mendes). The ratio of sympathetic to

parasympathetic (LF/HF) is called the autonomic balance ratio, a measure often used in

arousal studies (Catipovic-Veslica, 1999; Hainsworth, 1995; Kim, Seo, Kim, and Jung,

2008; Mathias and Stanford, 2003; Riener et al., 2009).

The current study seeks to 1) test whether HRV analysis is an effective measure

of cognitive load 2) identify the influence of a secondary task on cognitive load 3) test

whether cognitive processing draws on a multiple resource or a general resource




Participation was volunteer-based. Invitations were distributed to a group of six

undergraduate students, ages 18-22 year old. Participants were chosen based on

convenience. The study consisted of a total of 6 participants.

The procedure was performed in a clean, quiet, shielded room where distractions

do not produce artifacts during recording session. The control room was located next to

the shielded room as represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Diagram of lab set up

The BioPac MP40 hardware was used as the recording apparatus. Adequate white light

was provided by using room’s fiber optic lights in conjunction with Martin Lightjockey
software. For the primary driving task, the researcher used a driving simulator software.

Experimental Design

The study used a within-group experimental design. The independent variable

was secondary task which varied in complexity. The dependent variable was cognitive

load as measured by HRV. The primary driving task was kept constant while the

secondary task ranged from no task (A) to simple math task (B) to difficult math task (C).

The use of a generalized randomized block design counterbalanced order and sequence

effects (Table 1). Procedure trial order was assigned randomly prior to participant’s

arrival by picking the number out of a box. The picked number was then discarded so that

the procedure order was not repeated.

To differentiate between a multiple resource model from a unitary resource

model, mathematics secondary tasks were used. In order to observe an effect of cognitive

overload, varying level of difficulty of the secondary math tasks was used. Difficulty in

the actual multiplication stimulus did not vary. Difficulty was defined to be the amount of

time allotted for response after stimuli presentation. The simple multiplication task

consisted of 10 different mathematic stimuli sets. Each stimulus set consisted of a 9-

second blank slide, a 1-second math stimulus presentation slide, and a 20-second

response time slide, totaling to 30 seconds. The difficult math task consisted of 10

different multiplication stimuli. Each stimulus set consisted of a 24-second blank slide, a

1-second multiplication stimulus presentation slide, and a 5-second response time slide,

also totaling to 30 seconds.

Table 1. Generalized randomized block design

Baseline Task
ID Driving Math #1 #2 #3
(2 min) (2 min) (7 min) (7 min) (7 min)
1 A B C
2 A C B
3 B A C
4 B C A
5 C B A
6 C A B


Participants were provided a lab coat to protect their clothing. Participants were

then asked to read over and, if agreed to, sign an informed consent form. The researcher

then went on to inform the participant of the general procedure and task. After consent

had been given, the research proceeded swabbing the following areas based on a

modified lead II electrocardiogram recording: the left and right side of the neck near the

jugular veins, and the inside of the left ankle. Swabbing was done using alcohol wipes to

rid the skin of oils that may interfere with recording. Once the respective areas were

dried, silver-silver chloride electrode were attached to these three areas. The SS2L leads

from BIOPAC MP30 were attached to the electrodes in the following order: red electrode

to the left leg, white electrode to right neck, and black electrode to left neck. To prevent

movement artifacts, all three lead wires were taped loosely to the participant’s lab coat.

Participant was then introduced to the driving simulator and given 1 minute to be

acquainted with the interface of the driving simulator. Driving top speed setting was set

at 60 mph. The road circuit was chosen because it resembled a interstate highway with
spontaneous turns. There were no other cars on the road circuit. The participant was also

introduced to a 1-minute practice trial of the simple math calculation and difficult math

calculation task. 1-minute electrocardiogram baseline recordings were taken for each the

of the practice trials during driving, simple math calculations, and difficult math


After baseline recording, the researcher opened up the PowerPoint corresponding

to the participant’s procedure ID number. Participant was asked to drive for the

remainder of the 15-minute trial. Electrocardiogram was recorded over the 15-minute

trial. Markers were placed during the end/beginning of each trial. At the end of the 15-

minute procedure trial, electrodes were unhooked. Participant were then debriefed and

given 5 minutes for any questions or concerns they had.


Data Analysis


The current study found that addition of a secondary calculation tasks impose an

increase cognitive load on drivers (stats). More specifically, the complexity of the

secondary tasks showed a direct relationship with cognitive load levels. While the current

study found that participants performed particularly well on a raceway circuit with no

mathematical calculation errors, it is important to realize that the participants may have

reached maximum driving performance on the circuit within a short amount of time. Post

hoc analysis showed cognitive load decreased when moving from initial baseline driving

and to the 5-minute driving (AA) trial. Therefore, result supports other studies by
suggesting that the number of task results in cognitive overload which can be detrimental

for drivers.

The significant effect of cognitive load and the secondary mathematical

calculation task suggests cognitive processing follows a unitary resource model.

However, we must consider several confounding factors presented by the chosen

secondary task. Though the tasks requires c


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