When we go about our busy lives, we often rely on the ability to multitask. Multitasking is the ability to divide your focus between two things at once. Or is it? Many people do not know, but there is no such thing as multitasking. According to the National Safety Council (2012), the brain can only focus on one thing at a time, essentially switching from one task to the other very fast. While performing both tasks, attention is being divided and neither task is performed at maximum ability. The most common attention distraction we engage with today is the use of cell phones and driving.
This seems like a very simple task that doesn’t require a lot of focus, but there are actually many steps in the process of retaining information. First, our brains select the information to attend to. Then we process that information. After that, we encode that information into a memory to be stored. When accessing this stored information, our brain first retrieves and then executes (Understanding the Distracted Brain 2012). What many people don’t realize is that our brain can become overloaded and miss some of these steps. This is referred to as inattention blindness. The brain will skip steps to deal with processing all of the information coming in. For example, we could have missed important road information. In today’s society, we rely heavily on electronics. By bringing this topic to attention, people will be aware of the effects they could face when being influenced by our phones.
Inattentional blindness is something that impacts many people today. People are not aware that attempting to do two things at once can lead to inattentional blindness. It occurs when someone attempts to perform two cognitively complex tasks and the brain must then shift its focus between the two. When distracted by too many tasks at once, the brain will have a tendency to “look” but not “see” objects. Vital information for the task being handled could affect what is seen and is then not processed by the brain. The use of cell phones has been found to block out 50 percent of the information in their driving environment (Understanding the Distracted Brain 2012). Brain researchers have now identified reaction-time and switching costs (Understanding the Distracted Brain 2012). This is the amount of time it takes to switch between one task to another and the impacts that come along with it. This shows how dangerous using cell phones while driving is. Scientists have figured out there is a only a certain workload our brains can handle at one time. When performing two tasks at once, one is called the primary task, and one is the secondary task. The primary task gets all the attention while the secondary task is getting much less focus. Focused driving requires the use of all senses including visual, auditory, manual and cognitive. When this information was looked at in an fMRI by Carnegie Mellon University, they found that listening to language comprehension while driving decreases activity in the frontal lobe by 37 percent (Understanding the Distracted Brain 2012). This area of the brain is very important for driving. The study also found that visual processing in the occupational lobe had decreased activity (Understanding the Distracted Brain 2012). This is very dangerous as these areas influence our motor function and memory which is vital for driving.
When a person uses a cell phone while driving, this task results in slower response and reaction time. In between switching tasks, the brain must decide whether the information being processed needs an action, how to act, and whether to execute the action and stop the action. When putting this information to the test the University of Utah decided to conduct a study on reaction times of cell phone use versus an intoxication levels. They found that reaction times were slower than somebody with a .08 blood alcohol concentration (Understanding the Distracted Brain 2012). This is the legal intoxication limit which proves that cell phone use can be just as dangerous as drinking and driving. We now know how cell phones can impact our focus and attention while driving, but what about the impacts cell phones have in another high demanding cognitive task such as classroom attention?
Electronics have been allowed and even promoted in classrooms for the aid of student research and education. They are very helpful, when we are not distracted by them. With the rise of social media, adolescence are now on their phones more than ever before. This included in the classroom. Studies have been done revealing the affects many students face with the use of cell phones during class. Texting involves our visual and communicational attention. Important class information and focus is lost when cell phones are in use. According to Student College Journal (2012), the use of cellphones in class can impact attention, greatly reducing our retention of classroom material. An experiment was conducted at sterling college to evaluate the effects of texting in class. The students in the assimilated classroom had to watch a presentation followed by taking a quiz on the material (Froese et Al., 2012). The first group was told to text freely among each other while also trying to retain as much of the presentation information as they could (Froese et Al., 2012). The second group had no distraction of cell phones. The two groups were then switched to get the most accurate results. The study revealed the texting group ended up with a twenty-seven percent lower quiz score than the non-texters. (Froese et Al., 2012) Thus leading to the conclusion that conversational texting during class reduces visual and communicational attention. Many surveys and polls have been taken to try and help people realize the effects cell phones can have on our attention. Another study was done at Harvard University where a survey was given to six different universities to determine phone usage in class. The survey reported the students were using their phones on average of 11 times per day in class (Technology and Student Distraction n.d.). Another study showed that 92% of students reported using their phones to send text messages in class and 80% of them admitted knowing that cell phones decrease their ability to pay attention (Technology and Student Distraction n.d.).
The excessive use of cell phones is fragmenting our attention during important cognitive tasks. There are many consequences to multitasking as it impairs full functions needed for the important tasks of driving and paying attention in class. By educating people on this knowledge, they will be able to use these devices in the responsible manner they were intended for.