Trying To Do Too Much?
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.