Is multitasking a myth?

The suggestion that any type of phone use by drivers is dangerous is often very unpopular. This makes sense when you consider how hands-free technology is sold to us by car manufacturers as ‘safe’ and how the law only addresses hand-held phone use. It also makes sense when you consider the widely held view that humans can multitask.

We often assume that our brains are like computers, allowing us to process several tasks at once. The reality is slightly different. Our brains are bombarded with information brought in from our senses. This means we can’t possibly process all of that incoming information – instead it is filtered dependent on the given situation, with the most relevant and important information reaching our awareness and other, less pertinent, information receiving less processing. We’re largely unaware of this filtering of information as we don’t consciously decide what to process. Where possible, our brain uses shortcuts, based on past experiences, to make sense of situations – particularly if we’re trying to complete more than one task at a time. This can result in us failing to process information, even when it might be important to do so.

Can you multitask?

One of the best ways to understand all of this is to experience it. Try out this quick task. Watch the animation carefully and count the number of cars you see.

Our research on phone using drivers has looked at how our visual perception is affected by how and where we focus our attention. This video we made with BBC Ideas explains how our findings relate to drivers using their phones.

So, while it is possible for us to carry out multiple tasks – we don’t actually divide our attention equally between them, in the way that a computer can run several commands in parallel. Instead we constantly shift our attention between tasks. Head to the blog to find out what this means for phone using drivers, and why having a conversation with a passenger requires different cognitive resources from conversation on the phone.