The Multi-tasking Myth

by Svenja Borgschulte, Story & Social

I’ve got a friend who insists on turning off the music when backing into a parking space. “I need to switch it off, otherwise I can’t see anything”, he says. This got me thinking ..

As it turns out, this is a widespread phenomenon. It seems like the majority of us need full concentration for a reverse park. You turn down the radio, stop talking, and fix your gaze to the rear window. But why?? Neither the radio nor talking affects your vision?

Law of limited attention

For the most part, perceptual psychology assumes that the capacity of our attention is limited. Donald Broadbent explained this for the first time in 1958, that attention strictly regulates the flow of information from sensory input to consciousness.

photo credits to Kyle Pearce:

Since then, brain researchers have substantially proved that the human brain isn’t able to focus on several things at the same time. We are prone to the illusion that we do things simultaneously when in reality we actually are quickly switching between tasks. This is becoming even more severe with the emergence of modern tech, as we constantly switch between tasks that require different senses, like watching and listening for example. When we focus one of our senses, the others are muted. In other words, when we look closely at some details, we hear less sounds around us.

Music makes you lose control

Let’s have a look at the problem with parking. Throughout the experience of regular driving those of us with lots of experience mostly are aware of traffic and can control the movement of our car. The intensity and level of difficulty increases when searching for a parking space, and reaches the peak during the parking procedure.The spatial thinking in coordination with different movements is a crucial balance. When reversing, everything is even more difficult.

This is why it requires your full concentration to maintain the full capacity of your vision. When the music is turned off, the brain has more processing power to achieve this. Ever tried to read a book with your kids running around you? You probably noticed how slow is your reading speed is compared to the quiet environment of library or a relaxed cafe. As clever as it is, the brain doesn’t have the power to mute hearing and focus on the task you want to perform.

Multitasking is killing us

As we learned, music is a distraction when we are trying to reverse into a parking space. However, it doesn’t have the same effect when driving on the open road. There are two reasons for that: 1. It is an habitual activity and our brain is used to it so has more capacity left for other tasks. 2. Music and language doesn’t need as much attention as pressing buttons or touching screens.

Distraction isn’t only dangerous while driving: A fascinating study from the University of London showed that multitasking can actually lower your IQ. Participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.

photo credits to Karl-Heinz Kasper:

So every time you’re multitasking — listening to music while backing into a parking space for example — you not only risk a dent in your car, but damage to your head too. Of course that sounds very creepy, doesn’t it?! But no worries, in the end, the height of your stress level varies according to your individual resistance. Some people can handle stressful situations better than others. So some people need to turn the music of when reversing while others enjoy being relaxed by the hard bass of their favorite rock band. Where on the scale do you sit?

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Svenja Borgschulte (“Rosalie”) is responsible for Story & Social at German Autolabs. She loves flamingos, football and pasta.
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