Is It Possible to Multitask in Dynamic Environments?

BY RICHARD B. GASAWAY

If you are the type of person who can work on your laptop, listen to music on your portable music player, talk on your cell phone, and text message at the same time (maybe all while driving), this article is for you. Advances in technology have given us more opportunities to multitask than at any other time in the history of humankind. We are bombarded with visual and audible stimulation, most of which is at our fingertips.

Can humans multitask? The answer is yes! And no! The answer really is, it depends. The subconscious brain can multitask, but the conscious brain cannot. What does this mean for you? It means if you are performing an automatic, scripted routine that has been memorized and resides in the subconscious programming of your brain, you can perform several of those types of tasks at the same time. So, subconsciously, you can multitask.

However, if you are performing new or novel tasks that are not part of the automatic, scripted subconscious routines, then you must perform that task consciously. And the conscious brain can perform only one task at a time. So, consciously, you cannot multitask.

HUMAN BRAIN VS. COMPUTER

Although it can be dangerous (and deceptive) to compare the human brain to a computer, allow me the latitude to make a rudimentary analogy. When your computer is running, it is performing multiple behind-the-scenes functions, like maintaining an Internet connection while protecting your computer from viruses while downloading new e-mails as they arrive. For the most part, unless you open a particular application, you don’t even know it’s performing those functions. They happen automatically (or in brain parlance, subconsciously).

However, you can work on only one application on your computer desktop at a time. You can create a text document or input data into a spreadsheet or construct an e-mail response, but you can do only one of those things at a time. It is impossible to do them simultaneously. This is where the multitaskers become agitated and say: “That’s not true! I can do all three; all I have to do is size the windows so each program can be seen on the same screen, and then I can do all three at the same time.”

No, you can’t! And this is where you get tricked into thinking you can. Think about how you would create a text document, input data into a spreadsheet, and construct an e-mail. No matter how hard you try, you will be doing only one task at a time. Now, you may switch back and forth from one task to another very rapidly, giving you the appearance that you are multitasking, but in fact (sigh) you are only single tasking in rapid succession.

And this is what your brain does when you are performing multiple conscious tasks and gives you the appearance that you are multitasking. Science even has a name for it-interleaving. When you are performing multiple conscious tasks at the same time, what your brain is really doing is switching attention from one conscious task to the other and then back again. But, there is some good news. Your brain can do that very quickly (it takes about 0.25 of a second for your brain to switch attention between two conscious tasks).

The risk is, the more often your brain is switching between conscious tasks, the greater your vulnerability for forgetting exactly where you left off on the previous task. And, while your conscious attention is focused on one task, some part of the other task may be changing if it is a dynamic environment like a fireground or the highway. If that “other” environment is dynamic, research has demonstrated that you are 50 percent more likely to forget where you left off and 50 percent more likely to miss critical clues and cues while your attention was subverted to the alternate task.

MULTITASKING AND CONSCIOUS TASKS

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain has shown that multitasking conscious tasks is a myth. Researchers have wired subjects to monitoring equipment and had them perform a conscious task, observing which brain cells handled the task. Then the researchers had the subject stop the first task and perform a second task, again recording which brain cells handled the alternate task. Under the belief that while multitasking (performing both tasks at the same time) the brain cells that handled each task would fire simultaneously, the researchers were shocked. That didn’t happen!

What did happen is that the cells that handled one task lit up. Then they went dark. Then the cells that handled the alternate task lit up. Then they went dark. This happened back and forth in rapid succession, but at no time did the two groups of cells light up simultaneously, thus proving (scientifically) the brain does not perform multiple conscious tasks simultaneously. Rather, like your ability to perform only one task at a time on your computer (though in rapid succession), so does your brain perform just one conscious task at a time.

SUBCONSCIOUS MULTITASKING AND CONSCIOUS SINGLE TASKING

Besides the potential for disastrous effects of forgetting where you left off and missing critical clues and cues, there’s another potentially catastrophic pitfall here. It can occur when you are performing multiple subconscious tasks and a single conscious task simultaneously (which your brain can do). Driving a vehicle is a good example.

Let’s say you, an experienced driver, are tooling down the highway at 60 miles per hour (mph). While doing that, you are talking on your cell phone (this is not a practice that I would recommend for reasons that will become abundantly clear in a moment). Now, because in your state, the legislators, in their infinite wisdom, passed a law that requires drivers to use their cell phone hands-free, you must wear an earpiece. This ensures that you are abiding by the letter of the law and are “safer.” Right? Hardly! Earpiece or no earpiece, you are still multitasking.

But this multitasking is different, right? An experienced driver can operate a vehicle using subconscious programming. You know this is true because you have personally experienced it. On numerous occasions, you have driven to a destination and arrived safely, only to realize you are now completely unaware of portions of the trip because you were “zoned out,” which is the layman’s term for saying the brain was driving the vehicle using subconscious programming while the conscious brain was focused on something other than driving.

It is factual that an experienced driver can operate a vehicle mostly subconsciously. The problem is that the more this is done successfully, the more likely the driver is to forget he is operating in a very dangerous, dynamically changing environment where things can change very quickly-an environment where the processing of clues and cues of changing conditions is a constant requirement. But, you are good at it! You know this because you have never had an accident.

So long as everything about the trip is routine, you will probably be able to get away with doing this form of multitasking without consequence. But, let’s say that while driving and talking on the cell phone, another inattentive driver (probably talking on his cell phone) doesn’t see you coming and pulls right out in front of you. At that instant, driving the vehicle switches from a scripted, subconscious, routine task to a very unscripted and conscious task. You must react, and there’s no time to spare. The brain switches its conscious attention from talking on the cell phone to reacting to the immediate action needed to avoid the accident.

The switch in attention, as I noted previously, takes only 0.25 of a second. Remember, that’s really fast! Before you can react, the brain has to take in the visual stimuli, process it, stop thinking about the cell phone conversation (meaning those brain cells need to stop functioning), and the brain cells that tell you how to react to the obstacle in front of you need to get to work. Again, this takes only about one quarter of a second. The problem is, at 60 mph, the vehicle will travel 22 feet before your brain even registers the fact that a car has pulled out in front of you. This is sometimes referred to as “reaction time.”

As we bring these lessons to the fireground, you can now begin to understand how much risk is associated with the belief that you can consciously perform multiple tasks simultaneously. Research further suggests that the more stimulus-rich the multitasking environment is (e.g., multiple visual and auditory stimuli), the slower the response to refocus conscious attention to another task.

Let’s go back to the driving example. People critical of cell phone laws argue that talking on the cell phone while driving is the same as talking to someone sitting in the car. On the surface, that appears to be a plausible argument-until you break down what’s happening in the processing of audible stimulation. If you have a passenger in your car and you’re carrying on a conversation and someone pulls out in front of you, the conversation is going to halt immediately because both of you are consciously aware of the dire circumstances you are facing. It’s important to point out this does not speed up the brain’s required 0.25 seconds to switch attention. However, if you are having a conversation on your cell phone when the other car pulls out in front of you, the person on the other end of your phone call is completely unaware of what has just happened and will keep on talking, and for a few brief extra nanoseconds, your brain will keep on listening to the person on the other end of the phone. This slows the reaction time.

The same thing happens on the fireground in a stimulus-rich environment where there are many things to see and hear, most of which will not cease at the moment you need to refocus your attention onto something else. This will, as in the previous example, slow reaction time.

SOLUTIONS

The solution starts with avoiding the belief that you can effectively perform multiple conscious tasks simultaneously. Denial of these scientifically proven facts will not make you an effective multitasker; it will only make you more vulnerable.

• When you do something incompetent, whatever that may be (in this case, multitasking conscious tasks), there is a good chance you’ll get away with it (get lucky) and avoid a bad outcome. If you are lucky enough to get away with it, that may give you the confidence to try it again. The second time you perform that incompetent act (e.g., conscious multitasking) and you are again lucky enough to have a good outcome, this, again, gives you more confidence that you are good at it. Thus, you begin a spiraling, dangerous cycle. The “success” is not based on skill but rather on luck.

Incompetence, without consequence, builds confidence. If you have attended my Mental Management of Emergencies program in which I share the lessons of brain science for the benefit of the fire service, you have heard me share this lesson numerous times in the context of fireground-related casualty incidents. Unfortunately, by thinking you are a good multitasker (having successfully done so without consequence many times), you develop a level of confidence that may lead to catastrophe. Don’t be fooled by your lucky outcomes of driving and talking on your cell phone or multitasking on the fireground.

• Practice and develop your skills so they become subconscious, automatic, scripted routines. As you practice fireground skills in training and realistic simulations, the ability to perform them will convert to subconscious programmed skills. It’s very important, however, to continue practicing these skills, or the ability to perform them using your subconscious programming may deteriorate.

• Memorize scripts that represent a task list-for example, if asked to say the ABCs forward as fast as possible, the average person can successfully accomplish the task in about 1.5 to 2.5 seconds (depending on whether the person stops to take a breath). It’s an automatic, memorized routine.

However, if you ask that person to say the ABCs backward as fast as he can, watch what happens. Unless he has rehearsed and memorized it, you will witness an amazing display of the difference between the subconscious performance of an automatic task and the conscious performance of a novel task. In the latter case, the person can take 50 to 100 times longer to get the task completed (without error) and is many times more likely to make repeated mistakes, become angry and frustrated, and maybe even give up on the task. (I’ve conducted this experiment many times, confirming these results.)

• Share your mental workload. It may not always be possible to do this on a fireground, but is not impossible either. The more conscious tasks you can delegate to someone else, the less likely you are to fall victim to multitasking errors. This might include having someone monitor radio traffic, scribe important information, or watch for changing conditions.

•••

The issue of multitasking in dynamic environments is certainly not unique to the fire service. Unfortunately, from the perspective of validated scientific research, we’re just starting to measure and understand the risks of multitasking in dynamic environments. Currently, researchers, including those at the NASA Ames Research Center, Human Factors Division, are studying these issues for the benefit of pilots. Hopefully, the results will be scientifically validated solutions that can be applied to our emergency scene operations.

RICHARD B. GASAWAY retired after serving 31 years as a fire and EMS professional, including 22 years as a chief. In addition to his dedication to emergency services, he has a second passion-to understand how research in neuroscience can improve firefighter safety. A prolific author and speaker, he is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on fireground command, situational awareness, and decision making under stress.

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