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What exactly is multitasking, what is its impact on safety and are women really better at doing it? Those are the topics covered by this letter.


Multitasking is literally defined as the handling of more than one task at the same time. Strictly speaking this means that we are constantly multitasking. At this very moment you might be sitting at your computer, using the mouse and reading the text. Other combinations such as driving a car, eating and listening to the radio, are also familiar to us. By using the word multitasking we usually refer to a more specific form of combining tasks. In some cases this can have an impact on our safety.

What is risk scanning?

Risk scanning is a permanent brain process that checks both our past experiences on loose ends and our future plans on possible risks. It is an unconscious process that works both day and night without our noticing it. Some neuropsychologists claim it is the most important function of sleep: while there is no new input of stimuli, it checks all our experiences and plans on possible failures and stores the most relevant experiences in our long term memory. As such, it is a very powerful system that helps us to survive.

Conscious and nonconscious behavior

In order to better understand whether or not multitasking has an impact on safety, we first have to make a distinction between conscious and nonconscious tasks. Nonconscious tasks are those performed via previously learned and automated behavioral patterns. These patterns are stored in the brain and can be activated in a very efficient way. In principle there is no consciousness required to perform them, they come naturally. Examples are common activities like sitting, walking, cycling, but also standard activities performed whilst driving a car or even simple cognitive tasks like making minor calculations. Our consciousness forms a small and exclusive part of our existence that we can use every time something new or unknown appears. As long as we don’t have any stored patterns available, consciousness is needed to develop adequate responses to new circumstances. Once patterns are developed, consciousness can shift its focus to new things. A typical example of a conscious task is communicating with each other.

Conscious tasks: not alongside but subsequent

Regardless of the exclusiveness of our consciousness, it can only handle one task at a time. Watching an exciting movie whilst phoning is already a difficult task for the brain. Both tasks require the same consciousness which however cannot be divided into two. Whilst phoning your attention will from time to time shift to the movie and the person on the other end of the line will probably notice it immediately. Carrying out two conscious tasks at the same time appears to be multitasking, but actually the consciousness switches between the both tasks all the time. Due to the fact that attention has to be divided, the performance quality drops dramatically and the risks taken increase. Important information will be missed and mistakes are easily made. If one talks about mindfulness in relation to safety management (e.g. within the theory of the High Reliability Organization), one usually refers to dedicating consciousness solely to one task only.

Nonconscious tasks can be carried out at the same time.

In the case of nonconscious tasks this restriction does not apply. These tasks are already programmed and can be endlessly invoked and combined. The only limitation lies in whether the motor and cognitive skills can handle the combination. So we can eat whilst standing on one leg, in the meantime lacing our shoes and checking the time on a clock. Nonconscious tasks are designed in such a way that they can be performed with a minimum of energy and consciousness. The combination hardly has any impact on our safety track record.

The art of multitasking

In conclusion, as long as we perform only one conscious task, we can combine this with a lot of nonconscious tasks without losing any performance quality. An experienced drummer can easily drum two different rhythms at the same time whilst watching and listening to the other members of the band in order to follow and support their beat.

The exception

There is however a clear exception to this rule. Safety problems may arise when a conscious task has an influence on our perception and data collection. In this case our feedback system gets disrupted, which affects the execution of the other nonconscious tasks. An example is given in the previous letter: hands free phoning whilst driving. In this example the conscious task (phoning) leads to a neglect of the here-and-now stimuli and this disturbs the feedback process of the nonconscious task (driving). For this reason we don’t notice that we are not following a straight line and then act unsafely.

Men and women

Women have the reputation of being the better multitaskers. This is based on a complete misunderstanding. The brain systems responsible for multitasking are exactly the same for both males and females. Under normal circumstances, both men and women are equally good at multitasking. However, during the start of the menstrual cycle several hormones disrupt memory processes. This makes it more difficult to switch between tasks. On balance, males are slightly better at multitasking, but that’s not worth mentioning.

Juni Daalmans

June 2013

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