How Multi-Tasking Can Get You Killed!

Posted by: michael  :  Category: Factors affecting Brain Health

In caveman (cave person?) days physical survival no doubt topped our list of priorities. We would sense or observe danger and decide how to act to stay alive.

So let’s call that basic multi-tasking. There were two tasks involved: observation (sensory) and reaction (motor).

The amount of information coming in was quite small but highly relevant so it is likely we were very focused.

Well, I imagine you would be if an enormous lion was bearing down on you!

Did we perform the tasks in parallel or sequentially? That’s the sort of question to which I give the ‘stupid’ answer: Yes! (that’s meant to be amusing).

Research suggests that sensory and motor functions can proceed in parallel but that serial processing bottle necks may occur.

What that means is that at some point there may be a queuing up of processes. It also implies that the more mental processes involved (the more complex the tasks) the longer the queue and therefore the less efficient and less focused you become.

In the caveman example we assumed the amount of information coming in was small but highly relevant… so that the brain only needed to do a small amount of filtering.

But what if there was a flood of information coming in…?

Suppose our caveman saw the lion approaching while at the same time Mrs. Caveman was telling him to fetch some water and baby caveman starting crying and the dog started barking and woke up the caveperson neighbor who wasn’t very pleased and told the caveman so.

So much information coming in just when caveman wanted to get rid of the lion so it didn’t eat him and his family.

Unfortunately the caveman can’t quickly filter out what is important and what is not and could easily be distracted by irrelevant information just when he needs to be absolutely focused on the lion. This might lead to him taking his eye of the ball for perhaps just a split-second and making the lion very happy!

Okay, can you see where all this is leading?

When the tasks are simple in that they don’t require intense focus nor processing of large amounts of information they can proceed in parallel without much of a loss in efficiency. An example would be peeling vegetables while listening to music on the radio.

However, for more complex tasks that engage multiple mental processes efficiency can be significantly impaired. Likewise where there is exposure to too much information some of which is relevant and some of it not there is potential for distraction which can result in slower response times.

So why should any of this matter to you…?

Well, the technological age has brought with it the blessing (or is it a curse?) of exposure to vast amounts of information and the ability to communicate that information particularly via multimedia devices..

For example, the latest smart-phones put a huge range of multimedia at one’s fingertips.  Let’s suppose you are driving your car while chatting on the phone. Driving the car demands your full focus because it is a complex task that requires the ongoing processing of information and an appropriate response if you’re to avoid an accident.  

But at the same time you are receiving sensory information about the car in front and the car behind and whether the road is wet or dry and so on… you get information through your phone chat that so and so is having an affair.  

Now your brain has to very quickly try to sort out what information is important to your immediate safety and which is irrelevant. Now that might only take a fraction of a second but Bang! that can be too long when the car in front stopped.

So the does the technology age with the heavy widespread acceptance of  multimedia devices herald an era of individuals that lack the ability to focus and what are the possible implications in everyday life and employment?

I’ll leave you to ponder that… your thoughts and comments will be most welcome.

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