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Multitasking: Driving the Brain Drain

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Multitasking is valued in today’s culture, and our drive for increased productivity makes it tempting to use cell phones while behind the wheel. People often think they are effectively accomplishing two tasks at the same time. And yes, they may complete a phone conversation while they drive and arrive at their destination without incident, thus accomplishing two tasks during the same time frame. However, there are two truths to this common belief.

  1. People actually did not “multitask.”
  2. People did not accomplish both tasks with optimal focus and effectiveness.

Multitasking is a myth. Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time. In reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks – performing only one task at a time.

The brain not only juggles tasks, it also juggles focus and attention. When people attempt to perform two cognitively complex tasks such as driving and talking on a phone, the brain shifts its focus (people develop “inattention blindness”). Important information falls out of view and is not processed by the brain. For example, drivers may not see a red light. Because this is a process people are not aware of, it’s virtually impossible for people to realize they are mentally taking on too much. When we look at a view before us – whether we are in an office, restaurant or hospital, at the beach, or driving in a vehicle – we believe we are aware of everything in our surroundings. However, this is not the case. Very little information actually receives full analysis by our brains. Research shows we are blind to many changes that happen in scenery around us, unless we pay close and conscious attention to specific details, giving them full analysis to get transferred into our working memory.

Brain researchers have identified “reaction-time switching costs,”which is a measurable time when the brain is switching its attention and focus from one task to another. Research studying the impact of talking on cell phones while driving identifies slowed reaction time to potential hazards is tangible, measurable and risky.

Brains may face a “bottleneck” in which different regions of the brain must pull from a shared and limited resource for seemingly unrelated tasks, constraining the mental resources available for the tasks.28, 29 Research has identified that even when different cognitive tasks draw on two different regions of the brain, we still can have performance problems when trying to do dual tasks at the same time. This may help explain why talking on cell phones could affect what a driver sees: two usually unrelated activities become interrelated when a person is behind the wheel. These tasks compete for our brain’s information processing resources. There are limits to our mental workload.

Cell Phone Conversation Brings 4 Times Crash Risk – Beyond the driver performance problems described above in controlled simulator and track studies, increased injury and property damage crashes have been documented. Studies conducted in the United States, Australia and Canada found the same result: The above is an exerpt from the article, “Understanding the Distracted Brain. For more information visit www.nsc.gov

Blog post courtesy of the Merchants Insurance Company https://www.merchantsgroup.com