One reason why it’s so dangerous to drive while using a cell phone is that, according to psychologist Justin Halberda,”human beings are limited to paying attention to no more than three objects at any one time.” It’s the reason why we could never make sense out of watching sports, like the World Cup, if the players weren’t all wearing the same color uniforms.

Halberda says, “We report the rather surprising result that people can focus on more than three items at a time if those items share a common color. Our research suggests that the common color allows people to overcome the usual limit, because the ‘color coding’ enables them to perceive the separate individuals as a single set.”

How in the world do you prove something like this? Halberda asked Johns Hopkins undergraduates to view series of colored dots flashing onto a black computer screen. They were told to estimate the number of dots in one randomly selected set.

Half the time, the subjects were told in advance whether they should pay attention to just the dots of one specific color. Some sets contained as many as 35 dots in many different colors and the volunteers viewed the sets for less than one half second, which Halberda says “is too short to allow the subjects to actually count the dots.” Nevertheless, the people who were told in advance which set to pay attention to were very accurate in their counts.

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