SPUR 2021: Driving Under the Influence of Language: Exploring the Hidden Cognitive Effects of Driving While Listening to Degraded Speech


Most of us are familiar with driving down the road while chatting with a passenger. The ease and regularity by which we both drive and listen to speech belie the computational complexities that underly these two different tasks. Speakers produce 140-180 words per minute and often blend words together, requiring the speaker to normalize and process the speech almost instantaneously. Much research has shown that when speech is degraded, either by environmental noise or hearing impairment, successful comprehension decreases, and memory outcomes are worse. Driving does not simply involve muscle memory. It requires the driver to stay vigilant and be aware of and adapt to a changing environment. A profusion of empirical evidence has shown that driving performance drastically decreases as a driver’s attention is split between multiple tasks, such as texting. Indeed, one study has found that talking on the phone while driving resulted in impaired performance that was similar to driving while being intoxicated at the legal limit. The effects of distraction on driving performance and the effects of degraded speech on comprehension have been well documented. However, it is less clear how listening to perceptually challenging speech while driving affects the cognitive processes associated with either process. Does listening to acoustically degraded speech while driving reduce a listener’s ability to remember the content of the speech? Does driving performance suffer more when listening to degraded speech versus nondegraded speech? To answer these and related questions, we will be conducting lab-based listening effort experiments in a driving simulator.

Student Role

SPUR students who work in our lab will be involved in many aspects of the research process, including stimulus development, participant recruitment, data collection and analysis. Our lab uses a multimodal approach to studying language processes and has access to a wide range of research tools. For this project, the student will be using a state-of-the-art driving simulator for running experiments. In addition, the student will be conducting neuropsychological assessments looking at verbal fluency, vocabulary, and working memory capacity. They will also be administering hearing assessments, including pure tone audiometry and speech reception threshold tests. While participants perform drive in the simulator and complete speech comprehension tasks the student will be collecting continuous EEG and pupil size data and additionally collect behavioral responses. The student will be expected to present behavioral findings in lab meetings and at university level research conferences.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

As this project requires data collection using multiple methodologies, SPUR students will be trained in and gain experience with all of these techniques. Students will gain skills in operating and using a driving simulator for data collection, setting up a participant with an EEG system, collecting high quality EEG data, calibrating and using an eye tracker, and collecting and summarizing behavioral data. A SPUR student would also gain experience in administering several different neuropsychological and hearing assessments. The experience on this project would be ideal for undergraduates looking to apply for graduate programs in human factors, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, and psychology. The SPUR student would also be expected to give a presentation in one of our lab meetings. This will be a good opportunity to get experience presenting scientific findings.

Remote Contingency Plan

If circumstances do not allow for in-lab data collection then the SPUR student would participate in guided secondary data analyses from conceptually related experiments. These analyses would be looking at both EEG and behavioral data from speech processing experiments. This would afford the student to become familiar with more advanced statistical techniques and would give the opportunity to learn how to use statistical computing software such as R and Matlab. These advanced data analysis skills would be invaluable to any student wishing to have a more research-focused career.

Jack Silcox
Graduate Assistant, 
OUR Certified mentor

College of Social & Behavioral Science

I believe that a mentor's aim should be to provide for, encourage and uplift, and clearly communicate with their mentee, all with the ultimate goal of helping the mentee along on their journey to reach their potential.

A mentee seeks out a mentor specifically because they recognize that there is some skill, experience, etc. that they cannot provide for themselves. If this were not the case, then the mentor-mentee relationship would be unnecessary. Therefore, when taking on a mentee, it becomes the duty of the mentor to provide responsibilities, knowledge, skills, tasks, and constructive criticism.

While respecting appropriate professional and personal boundaries, I believe it is essential for anyone aspiring to be a great mentor to show sincere interest and concern. While it is vital to provide critiques, it is perhaps more important to provide positive feedback.

Poor communication can lead to both the mentor and the mentee having expectations of which the other is not aware. Therefore, it is necessary to communicate expectations from the very first meeting. As time and experience may change the expectations of both parties, it is paramount to meet and talk about these expectations frequently. Once both the mentee and mentor explicitly understand what is expected of them, the relationship can become mutually beneficial.