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Trying To Do Too Much?

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Cell-phone peril continued...

Yet multitasking behind the wheel is a very risky business. Last year, researchers at the University of Utah reported that attempting to navigate traffic while talking on a cell phone increases the chance of an accident 500 percent-making it at least as great a risk as driving drunk. While talking on a cell phone, the drivers in the study failed to notice even life-or-death cues such as red lights up ahead. And drivers who used a hands-free phone fared no better. That's because the problem isn't physical dexterity-it's focus. In the human mind, what you're thinking about takes precedence over what you're actually seeing or doing.

A distraction is to blame for nearly 80 percent of all traffic accidents, according to another recent study, this one sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And cell phones were the main culprit. (However, talking to a passenger while driving isn't nearly as risky, the Utah study's authors say, because passengers are likely to notice a change in the roadway and stop talking or call the driver's attention to it.)

So much for driving and cell phoning. But reality check: Is it ever OK to multitask? Actually, yes-when one of the tasks is so routine, you don't need to concentrate on it at all.

Mind over matter

The control center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, can handle just one new thing at a time, explains Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. But as tasks become more familiar, their operating instructions move deeper into the brain. There, the basal ganglia-islands of nuclei responsible for movement-handle activities that require almost no thought. So, for example, "when you're walking and talking," says Grafman, "the basal ganglia does the walking, while the frontal cortex does the talking."

Another way to look at it: You can combine tasks that use different sensory channels in your brain. It's tough to send an e-mail and carry on a phone conversation (not that many of us don't try). But it's pretty easy to fold clothes while listening to the weather report on the radio-unless, that is, a winter storm warning is announced. As you visualize the coming storm, your mental imagery and actual eye movements will struggle for dominance-and your mind will always win. Soon you'll begin putting mismatched socks together.

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