Recently a study by the University of Michigan revealed that the brain is not truly capable of performing many tasks at once. While it may seem like you can talk on your cell phone and drive at the same time, the authors of the study discovered the brain is actually switching from task to task. The brain puts one task down, so to speak, and takes a moment to pick up another one.
This job switching takes time. The study noted that the several tenths of a second it can take your brain to switch from one thing to another can add up to dangerous time. Take the aforementioned driving with the cell phone. During the time your brain is focused on the call, the car is still moving without it actually being under your control. That half second is enough time for an accident to occur.
The City of Austin's public safety task force recently approved a resolution that could lead to a requirement for motorist to use hands-free devices. This is a first step in a potentially long process toward a ban on text messaging in particular. Seven states--Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and West Virginia--all have a requirement for motorists to use hands-free devices.
The research on the effectiveness of banning text messaging for drivers is inconclusive at this point. It is difficult to provide exact statistics on wrecks related to cell phone use because drivers are reluctant to admit it. A recent article in the Austin-American Statesman cited a study in North Carolina by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that found teen drivers actually used cell phones more after a ban on them was enacted.
It is human nature to ignore inconvenient rules like banning cell phone use in the car. It is also human nature to think we can do it all. It is not just driving while talking on the cell phone or texting that puts multitasking into overdrive. A typical evening can find any parent simultaneously making dinner, unloading the dishwasher, helping with homework and thinking about the big presentation at work the next day. According to the Michigan study, the synapses in the prefrontal cortex, or executive mental control center, are sizzling under the demands.
The busy lives people weave together are not seamless. The study found that executive control involves two distinct stages called goal shifting and rule activation. So it's like the brain is saying, "I want to do this now instead of that, and I need to turn off the rules for one and turn on the rules for the other."
These stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks. For simple, familiar tasks, this is a relatively quick and seamless event. But there are days the threads of the many tasks get tangled and snarled as the brain tries to achieve more complicated goals. The more complex the commands are, the longer it takes the brain to switch from task to task.
However, more often than not, the brain is putting down one thread and picking up the next with great skill. The fragmented days lived in ten minute snippets of time are a remarkable testament to the power of the brain. You just might want to think twice before picking up the cell phone next time you're in the car.