The Myth of Multitasking

"Maybe I'm wrong but I'm bound to stay Single Minded night and day." - The Human League

When you're a widely read internet author such as myself, you are very often asked, "Where do you get the ideas for those amazingly interesting and entertaining essays?"

Well, I started thinking about how to answer that question and it gave me the idea for another essay. Yes, it's just that easy. If you are an author just thinking about how you get your writing ideas can give you new and exciting writing ideas. It's like a perpetual motion machine for creativity. And by the way, perpetual motion machines are entirely possible. I read about it on the internet. Forget everything you've heard about the so-called 'laws' of thermodynamics. We all know laws were made to be broken, if our religion suggests we should ignore them. In the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Motion, the Laws of Thermodynamics are mere suggestions to be applied very selectively.

My latest idea arrived while driving home yesterday on my 23 mile commute which lasts around 45 minutes on most weeknights. As I get off of US 183 and transfer to the frontage road of Highway 290, the traffic usually thins out enough that I can speed up. But yesterday as I cruised onto the frontage, the cars ahead of me were traveling about 40 miles per hour. The speed limit there is 50 and the average speed is closer to 60. As I looked ahead, I could see a car that was traveling slowly and sort of careening from white line to white line back and forth across the lane. But the frontage road is three lanes wide so I had no reason to stay stuck behind that car. I pulled out to pass, leaving ample room to allow for the erratic lack of lane discipline.

As I passed, I noticed two things. First, the driver was a woman which I do not consider relevant to the quality of driving. Honestly, my ex-wife, a trained instrument-rated pilot, was an excellent driver, both on land and aloft. Gender suggests, if anything, women are better drivers overall than men. The second thing I noticed was that the driver was holding a cell phone to her head and jabbering away. While she drove 20 mph slower than surrounding traffic. Veering back and forth across her lane. And I am sure if you asked her if she was capable of driving and talking on the phone simultaneously, she would assure you that her cell phone behavior had no effect on her driving. I am sure of this because I feel confident that she was completely unaware of how dangerously she was obstructing traffic and if she had been, she'd have chucked the phone into the back seat at once.

I'm the first one to admit that if I divert my attention to a phone call or adjusting the stereo or whatever, my driving suffers. There is a scientific reason for this, of course. That scientific reason is a very simple concept that I know will be hard for some of you to accept, but here it is:

The human brain does not multitask.

Intel makes processors that are multi-threaded meaning they can conduct two, four, or six processes at the same time. Except they don't. They just jump back and forth between different processes very, very quickly. Guess what? Your brain works under the exact same restriction. It can only focus on one process at a time. At best, it can jump back and forth between them relatively quickly. But the incontrovertible fact is this: if you are focusing on a cell phone conversation or tuning in your favorite station, or keeping your affectionate dog out of the front seat, you are NOT focusing on your driving.

I'm not inventing facts here. This has been studied and tested. In fact, the tests brought together thousands of volunteer drivers and compared the driving skills of people who were focusing only on driving, those focusing on a cell phone call while driving, and those who had imbibed enough alcohol to raise their blood-alcohol level to 1.2. The results were startling. First of all, over 95 percent of the drivers who drank performed worse than when sober. This is not unexpected and it is what statisticians refer to as 'highly significant'. That means there is a solid, scientific correlation between drinking and driving badly.

The cell phone users were actually WORSE than the drinkers. Over 97 percent failed the same test which in statistical terms is called 'very highly significant'. That means that with almost zero exceptions, human beings trying to talk on the cell phone drive as badly as if they are seriously drunk. And just to head off what you're thinking - you are NOT the exception. That 3 percent is what is referred to as 'acceptable statistical error'. That means, those who tested in the 3 percent are far more likely to indicate flawed tests than people whose brains operate differently from the rest of Homo sapiens sapiens.

Just in case you're skimming and not really following me closely, here is the recap: your brain does not multitask! It just doesn't. If you are talking on a cell phone, you are NOT paying full attention to your driving. No, you are not and stop saying you're different. Most of the people in the studies mentioned above thought they'd done fine on the test. Then they were shown video. The videos are terrifying, for two reasons.

First of all, they show some absolutely horrifying driving skills. They show people driving at erratic speeds, unable to maintain a straight path, and completely unable to react properly to an emergency situation. But the most terrifying thing of all, most of the test subjects had no idea they were driving that badly until they were shown the video. Which means the vast majority of those drivers who try to multi-task while driving have no idea how much danger they are putting themselves and others in which means they will probably continue to do it on a regular basis.

I have steering wheel controls for both my Bluetooth phone system and my car stereo.

And I know for a fact that if I get a call, it takes me a few seconds to think through the process, find the button on my steering wheel that answers the call, and then engage it. During those few seconds, I am not consciously driving my car. If something unexpected happened, I would react precisely as if I was bombed out of my mind. I believe the science, folks. Even after I manage to hit that button, merely focusing on the phone call and carrying on a conversation distracts me from driving.

To recap: the human brain does not multitask. You are not an exception to this rule.

Think very carefully about the situations in which you THINK you are multitasking. Think about household chores or work around the office and examine carefully what you are actually doing at any moment when you are allegedly multitasking. If you study the situation honestly and answer truthfully, you will have to admit that at any given moment, you are only doing one thing at a time. How do I know?


I know what you're thinking - you've done that old stunt where you pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. That's not multitasking. Think it through. You do one then the other, then you gradually figure out how to do both at the same time. That's because your brain does a remarkable job of synthesizing two physical actions into one process. Now, try doing that process (the patting and rubbing process) while answering someone's questions.

Here's the thing: you can concentrate on multiple physical motions and call it one process. But you cannot concentrate on two processes - ie. talking on the phone and driving a motor vehicle - at the same time. The reason is simple - you cannot rely on muscle memory and repeatable patterns in order to engage in conversation and coherently respond to another person. You CAN rely on muscle memory to keep your car between the white lines and maybe, just maybe, maintain the speed you are going. But the second a child jumps off the curb, something has to give. Either you instantly divert your attention away from the call and avoid the child, or we have a vehicular tragedy.

And here's a hint: re-focusing your attention on the child will take time. Measureable time. Ample for a highly regrettable tragedy time. This is why states are enacting laws outlawing texting and driving. Honestly, because it requires your eyes to leave the view ahead, it is clearly even worse than talking on the phone. But states probably SHOULD ban using a cell phone in any way while driving. The reason is simple: the effect on your concentration is every bit as bad as having a blood-alcohol level of 1.2 which, I am sure you realize, is illegal.

Look, I am big on civil liberties. I think you should have the right to do pretty much whatever the hell you want, as long as it can't inadvertently kill someone else. Like me. You should NOT have the right to do something in your car that will make you a driver so erratic, you are indiscernible from a DUI case. I imagine banning stereo adjustments will be too heavy handed, but then those are much easier to interrupt and usually don't take more than a couple of seconds. I can compromise a bit on that one. But it's still dangerous. Even more dangerous is trying to converse on a phone while driving.

And why is this the case?

Yeah, your brain cannot multitask. At least, not if you are a human being. If you are some other species with multiple brains or maybe an alien from Zeta Reticuli, your case may be special.

If you THINK you are either of those things, you are also 'special', but in an entirely different and much sadder way.