Computers are wonderful things. They can process huge amounts of information at one time and distill that information down into understandable statistics. Computers can multi-task, too. A computer can divide its functioning or multi-tasking as far as its memory will permit, as it is instructed to do.
When you see the famous “hourglass” on a computer, you know it has taxed its capacity as far as it can and has chosen to stay in a “loop” for the time being. It may emerge from that loop or you may need to “reboot”.
Contrary to many comparisons, the human mind is NOT a computer. There is no hourglass and you can not reboot your mind. The human brain is not geared to multi-tasking and all those people out there who believe they are “multi-taskers” are just kidding themselves, at least while operating a motor vehicle.
Multi-Tasking is a Myth
The human brain handles tasks in a sequential manner. It switches back and forth between tasks and, although this happens very rapidly, the human brain is distracted from one task while it is focusing on another.
In order to function at tasks and execute actions, the brain must go through a process for each function:
When the brain is juggling different tasks, it is also trying to arrange focus and attention to those tasks. When a person attempts to perform two complex cognitive tasks, the brain must shift its focus to manage one task at a time. This process is identified as “reaction-time switching costs” and represents a measurable period of time in which the brain is moving its focus from one task to another.
How does brain processing affect driving ability and reaction times? If the brain is being forced to toggle between various responsibilities, it requires time to complete the switch. This time, individually may only amount to a few tenths of a second between toggles, but taken as a whole, a single process costs valuable “down time” for the brain while it switches from one task to another.
A car traveling at 40 mph will travel 120 feet, more or less, before it can stop. The stopping distance is equal to roughly eight car lengths and even a fraction of a second delay for a brain switch could result in the vehicle traveling several additional car lengths before it comes to a stop.
In addition to simple brain processing delays, the brain can reach a traffic jam of functioning, when the strain of multiple tasks and constantly diverted attention causes performance problems; extends the time the brain can process information and put it into action; and can result in mental overload due to consistent unrelated tasks competing for processing power.
The coined phrase that you can’t “chew gum and walk at the same time” really has nothing to do with cognitive processing. Chewing gum is not a cognitive skill and chewing gum while walking does not impede the person’s ability to process information necessary for the single task of walking, including:
None of the above requires multiple cognitive task processing because it is a single task, albeit comprised of multiple factors.
The brain is functioning at a cognitively complex level when driving and it involves all aspects of sensory:
In addition to the various functioning, each is required to distribute varying levels of attention: