Reaction Time

Reaction Time

Iran Biruni.jpg In cartoons, reaction time is the time it takes for Tom to realize Jerry has glued a stick of dynamite to his tail, until he attempts to detach from it and get away. Unfortunately for him, Tom is always too slow. Reaction time is part of the human make up, and is apparent in everyday life. For example, when a driver spots a lost dog crossing the street and immediately stops his car to save the vulnerable animal, this is known as reaction time. By definition, reaction time (RT) is the time between the appearance of a sensory stimulus and the behavioral response (Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology, par 1). Reaction time was first defined by a Persian scientist in the early eleventh century, whose name was Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad who did not live to see his theory tested, but contributed to the measurement of reaction time (The Columbia Encyclopedia, par.1).To learn more on this topic, it is important to discover the history and research behind reaction time, the measurement of reaction time, and how distractions affect reaction time.

Reaction time was first described by Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad, a Persian scholar from the eleventh century (Iqbal 116). His theory remained untouched for eight centuries. Finally, because of the Persian scholar's innovative thinking, reaction time was measured by a trained military doctor and Dutch scientist named, Franciscus Cornelis Donders (Perera and Haupt, par. 4). Dr. Donders, who was primarily a renowned ophthalmologist, conducted experiments measuring reaction time. He used a phonautograph and a tuning fork, an instrument similar to a gramophone, changing its name to neomatachgraph which means an “understanding-swiftness-writer” (Feaster par. 2). Dr. Donders had two subjects sitting in front of a recording funnel and the barrel was set in motion while a tuning fork engraved wavy lines on a trace sheet. When the preparations were made one of the subjects would shout a syllable and then the other person would shout the same in return. He measured reaction time by counting the vibrations between the call of the first subject and the response of the second subject (Feaster pars. 1-3). He was actually defining recognition time. Recognition time is the time it takes for the brain to identify stimuli and order a physical reaction. In other words, what Donders found was that it took 0.8 seconds for the second subject to identify and reply to the first subject's shout.

Measurement of reaction time may be as easy or as difficult according to the degree of accuracy desired. Because there are many variables in measuring reaction time, researchers at the University of Berkley have designed an instrument that measures reaction time automatically; this is called the Jensen Box (Jensen 101). This instrument is approximately twenty inches wide and twelve inches deep, with a sloping front which has an array of LED lights encircled on the front. The individual taking the test is instructed to press the button located in the center of the box, as soon as any of the several bright LED lamps are lit. Because of this useful tool, many scientists are able to measure Reaction Time without the grueling process of doing it manually. A more simple and primitive way of finding human reaction time, is to obtain a stop watch, then convince a human subject to take the test. Once the eager scientist has done this, he/she will throw water balloons (or any other object they can think of) at their unsuspecting victim, and measure the time it takes for the subject to react to his/her ruthless plan. Although this plan is the simplest of all, the most accurate way to measure reaction time for scientists, would be to acquire the Jensen Box, because it has been proven to accurately pinpoint the time elapsed between the signal and the hand of the subject who is being tested (Wikipedia, pars. 1-2).

Studying reaction time is an important branch of science, which applies to our modern life style. In recent years various police agencies have complained about texting and driving, stating that these distractions cause accidents. According to Don Linton a prosecuting attorney, featured on a video presentation, depicting the story of Reggie Shaw, a seventeen year old driver who killed 2 men on September 22, 2006, texting and talking on the phone while driving is as dangerous as being intoxicated-two times over the legal limit! Eighty percent of accidents in the United States are caused by driver distractions such as, texting or cell phone conversations. While these activities can be considered harmless, in reality, they are extremely dangerous distractions during driving. Due to numerous collisions, five states have prohibited texting while driving. They are Rhode Island, North Carolina, New York, Illinois, and Alabama. “A teen driver's worst enemy is their phone while they are driving” says Dr. David Strayer, in A Goal We Can All Live With. A test performed by Car and Driver Magazine confirms that texting while driving is more dangerous than being intoxicated. Even if one is stuck in traffic, they must never touch their phone because all it takes is one second. Although many people are aware of this study that has been performed many of times, they still will continue to multitask behind the wheel.

Reaction time is part of the human makeup and it is interesting to discover the history and research behind reaction time, the measurement of reaction time, and how distractions affect reaction time. The innovative thinking of the Persian scholar Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad, paved the road for measuring reaction time. The Dutch lab scientist and military doctor, Franciscus Cornelis Donders, was the first scientist to successfully measure reaction time. Later, the Jensen Box designed by researchers at the University of California, Berkley, fine tuned the measurement of reaction time, and is used by many other schools, scientists, and researchers around the globe. Tragically, it has been observed that texting while driving, prolongs a driver's reaction time and is a dangerous practice; if it is not prohibited it will continue to claim lives. Los Angeles Times recently featured an article about the newest trend pioneered by Ford Motor company. “At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ford executive, Alan Mulally, showed off how consumers could soon catch up on Twitter, listen to internet radio, check movie times and get turn-by-turn directions, using SYNC's voice commands or an 8 inch color touch screen in the dashboard, in Ford's spring lineup of cars” (B1). God speed, and look out for distracted drivers.

Works Cited

"Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 31 Jan. 2010 <>.

Stewart Duke-Elder, “Franciscus Cornelis Donders,” British Journal of Ophthalmology, volume 43, no 2 (Feb 1959), (accessed January 26, 2010).

"Reaction Time." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2001. The Gale Group Inc. 31 Jan. 2010 <>. (accessed January 15, 2010).

Iqbal, Muhammed. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Lahore, 2009. (accessed January 31, 2010).

"Ki! Ki!": Franciscus Donders and the Neomatachgraph.” First Sounds. 2010. <>.

Jensen, Arthur. Speed of Information-Processing and Intelligence. Norwood, Ablex Publishing Corp, 1987.

“A Goal We Can All Live With.” Zero Video. Utah, 2006.

UCLA's ePhysics. UCLA. Web. 8 Jan. 10. <>.

"Reaction Time." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2001. The Gale Group Inc. 26 Jan. 2010 <>.

Plumbot. Web. 8 Jan. 10. <>.

Pham, Alex. “Ford Puts Mobile Apps In Cars.” Los Angeles Times 8 January 2010: B2

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