Nobody who multi-tasks multi-tasks.
Not you. Not me.
We perform multiple tasks sequentially.
One thing at a time, one after the other.
Our brains can’t handle things any other way.
Works like this. We, as in I, so I might as well say I---I might have several projects open on my desk or my desktop and I may have given myself the same deadline for all of them. Being a model of competency, efficiency, and focus, I move effortlessly from one to the other and back again, completing them in time to get to the meeting, the train, the illicit rendezvous that I had scheduled. Once there I will boast to my colleagues, the conductor, my fellow illicit rendezvouser that I was able to be there with them because I accomplished five things at once. I multi-tasked my way to the conference table, onto the car as it pulled away from the station, into waiting arms. Hooray for me.
You’d be so impressed.
No, you wouldn’t. Because you’d know that I hadn’t actually done all those things at once. If I’d given myself two hours to perform five tasks I’d done nothing more clever than someone who had given himself 24 minutes to complete a single job, then moved on to the next and finished that in 24 minutes, and then moved on to the next three, one after the other, completing each of those in 24 minutes.
The difference between him, that plodder, and me, the brilliant multi-tasker, is that I might have looked busier as I frantically shuffled through papers and tapped computer keys and shouted into my cell phone. What I’ve demonstrated is an ability of dubious worth to interrupt myself at crucial moments, redirect my thoughts, focus on something new for a few minutes, and then interrupt myself again, aggravating my ulcer, raising my blood pressure, and increasing the odds that one or more of my five projects has received less than my full attention and energy with predictable less than optimum results.
Basically, the thinking part of the human brain is only able to think about one thing at a time, and a multi-tasker intending to save time has actually added to the time it’ll take to do a job because the brain needs time to switch gears.
And that, my children, is why it’s never a good idea to talk on your cell while driving, even with BlueTooth.
According to John Medina, a molecular biologist, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, member of the faculty in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and author of the book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School .
I’ve got video of Medina explaining all this himself coming up at the end of the post, but basically, what I think he’s saying is this.
While we’re driving we’re thinking or supposed to be thinking about what the car is doing and what we’re doing to the car. Our attention is constantly shifting. Obviously there are some tasks we perform automatically. That’s because our muscles have “memory.” That muscle memory allows us to “multi-task” while driving. Those multiple tasks might include unwrapping and feeding ourselves a hamburger, drinking a latte, reaching for a napkin after spilling the latte or letting some ketchup drip, but they do not include noticing the brake lights coming on on the car two cars ahead of us, the deer dashing out of the cornfield to our right, the construction worker deciding that he needs to cross a lane at that moment to get to the port-a-john, the cop suddenly showing up on our tail. Nor do they include the brain’s processing of the information acquired from noticing those things nor its decision about how to respond nor its giving orders to our hands and feet to turn the wheel or stomp on the brake or the accelerator. All those tasks, the noticing, the processing, the deciding, the telling, the brain has to do one at a time, one after the other, very fast.
Throw another task in the mix and very fast decelerates to fast or even to slow or at least to too slow. Talking on the phone turns out to be one task too many. People who make a practice of yammering on their cells while driving will defend themselves by saying, But I talk all the time while I’m driving. You do too. We talk to the people in the car with us. What’s different about talking on the phone? The answer is not much and we probably shouldn’t chit chat while driving as it is. But there is enough of a difference to make talking on the cell a more attention-consuming task and therefore one harder to shift focus away from quickly.
The difference, if I understand Medina right, is this.
We don’t need to see the person in the car with us the way we need to “see” whoever’s yakking with us on the cell. In the car we’re content with a quick glance over at the passenger seat or up at the rearview mirror. It’s enough to catch sight of them from time to time, for a second or less, in our peripheral vision. But when we’re talking to someone on the phone we tend to look at them squarely and keep our attention focused. That is to say, our imagination kicks in. It goes to work recreating the person we’re talking to, but not just the person, which is hard enough if that person is someone we know well and see often and the imagination is working from memory. It’s harder when the imagination is working from scratch. And it’s not just the person’s face the imagination is busy with. What that person’s doing, what they’re wearing, where they are and how’s the weather there, all of that and more the imagination lays out for us, with each detail being a separate and sequential thought.
You could say, then, that talking on the phone while driving is like daydreaming or watching television while driving, and that’s a scary enough thought. One of the most frightening moments in a car that doesn’t involve the actual screeching of brakes or the twisting of metal or the approach of sirens is suddenly noticing you are miles and miles farther along the road than you were the last time you noticed where you were and you have no memory of having covered the distance or of anything you saw between back there and here. But daydreaming and watching TV are tasks the brain can perform lazily. Talking on the phone is more labor intensive. It’s closer to painting with oils or writing sonnets while driving. And that makes it much more difficult to call the brain’s attention away from the task and get it to re-focus on new ones, like noticing the jackknifed tractor trailer up ahead and stopping your car before you add it to the heap in your way. That takes time, possibly more time than you’ve got, so you need to do it quickly, and the problem is you can’t do it quickly. You have too much to do to disengage and refocus.
Your reaction time is just going to be slower than if you hadn’t been yammering on the phone.
As slow as that of someone who is legally drunk.
Ok, now for the video.
And here’s Medina himself on driving and talking:
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go disengage my Brodmann Area 10 for a while.