The Myth of Multitasking and the Psychology of Distracted Driving

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We all know folks who tout their uncanny ability to “multitask.” But there’s abundant research to show that multitasking is really a myth.

Brain science tells us you simply can’t focus your attention on two things at once, at least not fully and consistently. Sometimes, it can seem like you can because many of us actually do have the ability to make subtle and frequent shifts in our attentional focus, thereby making it possible for us to expand the scope of our overall awareness. But the idea that we can be mentally in two places at once is a falsehood — which is why those who think they can text and drive, or check email or message alerts while guiding their vehicle, without risk are doing nothing more than tempting fate.

There are several good online resources for up to date information on the nature and perils of cognitive distraction, the best of which is The National Safety Council site. There you can find a downloadable white paper on the dangers of distracted driving and the supporting research. Some of the research, especially the research rooted in neuroscience, is a bit hard to understand. So here’s the skinny on why you simply can’t safely drive and pay attention to your mobile digital device at the same time:

Our brains are hardwired to alert us to danger.
It’s part of our evolutionary heritage. We would never have survived as a species if we didn’t have “systems” built into our nervous system to alert us to potential dangers lurking about, especially predators. So when we hear an unusual sound, see a flash of light, sense a sudden change in the wind or temperature, smell something foul, or get that odd sense that some other living thing is lurking nearby, we instantly perk up and scan our surroundings. It’s called an “orienting reflex” and it’s exactly that — a reflex. It’s not a voluntary decision on our part, but rather an automatic response emanating from our “reptilian brain” (that part of our neurophysiological makeup that dates from very early in our evolution) designed to make us attend to potential danger. So when we hear that “ding” on our smartphone that tells us a mail message has just come in or that cute little chime that tells us someone has just sent us a text message, we automatically orient to the alert. We might well be able to “process” the notion that whatever information we’ve just received can wait for a response, but we still can’t help taking notice of the alert. Although we can exercise voluntary control over how much we process what we’ve been alerted to, at times the urge to re-orient our attention — if even for a moment — can be pretty strong, precisely because our brains always want to know what the warning signal we just heard, saw, or smelled is all about. It’s in the diverting of our attention that problems come, which leads to the next point.
All attention is “selective.”
In a nutshell, this means that before our brain can “process” information of any type, it has to first select the information it’s going to process. As creatures with highly evolved brains, we can and do engage in “attention-switching” behaviors, sometimes going back and forth quite rapidly between two mental stimuli. This is an adaptive ability to have, as any person who’s learned to look both ways quickly and repeatedly at an intersection before proceeding to cross it already knows. To be clear, we’re talking about attention here and not mere awareness. Any of us who has reclined on the beach reading a book knows what it’s like to be aware of the chirping of the gulls, the sound of the waves, and the coolness of the breeze, but we simply can’t focus our attention on one of those things and attend to what we’re reading at the same time. Professionals who use hypnosis for clinical purposes know how true it is that the brain simply can’t deeply process anything it’s not properly attending to. I remember vividly an experiment a skilled hypnotherapist conducted on a group of us learning about how to use the technique to divert a person’s attention away from the pain they might otherwise process while having a cavity filled at the dentist’s office. While seated with our eyes closed, were told to imagine that someone was standing behind us with hands firmly on our shoulders holding us firmly in place. We were told only to keep our attention on that image, no matter what instruction we heard next. Then the order came: “Stand up!” But those who obeyed the order to keep their attention focused on the image of being held in place remained seated. Moreover, those who disobeyed the original order for just a second and tried to heed the second command, couldn’t do it if they quickly and solidly returned their attention to the image. It was a powerful demonstration of the nature of attention and how it’s really impossible to pay full attention to two things at once.

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Lastly, while most of us can “attention-shift,” no one can shift attention rapidly enough to avoid risk when engaged in an activity that demands our full, sustained attention, like driving. It only takes a split-second with our eyes off the road for danger to present itself. A woman recalled to me in tears how she had only turned her head quickly to see if the sound she heard in the back seat was her toddler choking, only to learn after regaining consciousness in the hospital that the car in front of her had braked suddenly at that very moment to avoid an animal that had darted into the road — and in a split second both cars were demolished.

Very few studies have looked at what I think might be the most intriguing question of all when it comes to distracted driving: why the accident rate isn’t a lot worse than it is, given how common it is for folks to be engaged in one way or another with their various electronic devices while behind the wheel. Oh, accident rates have gone up alright, just not as much as many had feared. I suspect that’s because not only do we have the ability to attention-shift but also many of us have gotten so rehearsed at doing it in this age of “multitasking” that we’ve gotten fairly accomplished at it. But as any accident survivor will tell you, it only takes that one time and that brief moment of distraction to invite disaster. Sadly, there are far too many who, despite their awareness of the dangers of distracted driving, are no longer talking.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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