New Studies On Multitasking: What’s Your Risk From Brain Overload?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

New studies of the nature and challenges of multitasking have important implications about the safety of police driving, both on patrol and in high-speed pursuits, according to Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute.

One research team, at the University of Utah, revisited the often-studied subject of cell phone use while driving—and discovered something new.

Contrary to the researchers’ expectation, there are people who can pay attention to a cell phone exchange while moving through traffic, without experiencing deterioration of their driving skill.

However, these “supertaskers,” as Dr. Jason Watson and Dr. David Strayer of the University’s psychology department term them, comprise a tiny “exceptional” minority—only 2.5% of those tested. The overwhelming majority “showed significant performance decrements” when attempting to multitask.

Watson and Strayer monitored 200 male and female volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 43, during an exercise with a high-fidelity driving simulator. The subjects were required to brake “in a timely and appropriate manner” during a simulated trip along a 32-mile stretch of multi-lane highway “with on- and off-ramps, overpasses, and 2- and 3-lane traffic in each direction.” If they failed to brake, “they would eventually collide” with another vehicle.

The researchers compared how the subjects performed when they had only to concentrate on driving vs. when they used a hands-free cell phone to hear and respond to math and memory problems that were posed as they tried to maneuver the route.

For 97.5% of the group, “dual-task performance was inferior to single-task performance,” the researchers found. Moreover, both the driving and the unrelated problem-solving via cell phone deteriorated for most subjects when attempted simultaneously.

The impact of cell phone use on driving found in other studies was reconfirmed, Watson and Strayer report: “brake reaction times are delayed, object detection is impaired, traffic-related brain potentials are suppressed, and accident rates are increased…. [C]ell phone conversations lead to a form of inattention blindness causing drivers to fail to see up to half of the information in the driving environment that they would have noticed had they not been conversing on the phone.”

Why the small minority of extraordinary supertaskers were able to perform “both tasks at the same time with high levels of proficiency on each” and with little or no impairment is not known. The researchers hope to study these “strikingly remarkable” individuals in greater depth.

Meanwhile, they caution against the temptation to think that you are among the exceptional few. “A great many people have the belief that the laws of attention do not apply to them,” Watson and Strayer write. However, “the odds of this are against them.”

Lewinski agrees. “In today’s patrol cars, there are many distractions from driving—cell phones, data terminals, radio traffic with dispatchers and other officers, the need to assess information and plan strategy when you’re en route to calls.

“When you’re attending to these things, your ability to perceive and react to what’s happening in your driving environment is in fact impaired, perhaps significantly so, even though you may believe you are monitoring it simultaneously.

“If high speed is added to the mix, you become even more of a hazard to yourself and other drivers or pedestrians.

“To be safer, you need to reduce either the distraction or the challenges of the roadway. That could include driving slower, using a route less traveled, and maintaining significant distance between you and vehicles ahead so you have greater reaction time to help compensate for the ‘performance cost’ of your divided focus.”

[Click here to access the full report of the Utah study.]

In a second new study, researchers in France reached a conclusion about multitasking that Lewinski expresses some caution about.

A report co-authored by Dr. Etienne Koechlin, a professor with the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research in Paris, and widely reported this month [Apr. 2010] in the science news media, finds that the human brain can successfully handle 2 tasks at once but becomes “muddled” when attempting 3.

The researchers used functional MRI scans to study the frontal lobes of the brains of 32 volunteers “while they were performing fairly complicated tasks” involving letter matching and sequencing.”

When the subjects were doing just one task, “there was activity in goal-oriented areas of both frontal lobes,” Koechlin says. “That suggested that the 2 sides of the brain were working together to get the job done.”

When the volunteers took on a second task, the lobes “divided their responsibilities,” each pursuing its own task; the left lobe focused on the first job, while the right focused on the second.

When a third task was introduced, however, the brain seemed overwhelmed. “People slowed down and made many more mistakes. That suggests that the frontal lobes can’t maintain more than 2 tasks,” Koechlin says.

Lewinski’s concern is that laymen may interpret this to mean that a human being can in fact simultaneously focus equally on 2 demands for attention. That misleading conclusion could be potentially dangerous if it builds over-confidence and over-dependence on multitasking.

What happened during the experiment, he believes, is that the brains being studied quickly switched back and forth from one task to another, alternately engaging the 2 frontal lobes. But in a stressful, threatening situation, that would no longer be possible, he says.

“It is very clear, both in terms of common sense and scientific documentation, that once something arises that captures your attention, your external focus immediately narrows down to just that 1 area. Yes, you can walk and talk at the same time, one of the most simplistic forms of multitasking. But once you trip, you can no longer carry on the conversation because your full attention is concerned with dealing with your tripping.”

That is why it is so important to hone your skills to the point that most of your performance in a stressful situation is automatic, leaving the cognitive centers of your brain free to focus on factors of life-saving decision-making.

Take pursuit driving. As we’ve reported previously in Force Science News, British police who are permitted to engage in vehicle pursuits receive vastly more training in high-speed driving than their American counterparts. Pursuit drivers for London Metro Police, for example, initially get 6 weeks of intensive instruction and practice conducted in variable weather and lighting conditions on real roads and highways among real traffic at speeds up to 150 mph. Training and practice continue on a regular basis beyond that.

These officers become extremely sophisticated drivers, able to read subtleties like the impact of tree shade on road-surface moisture, to predict traffic patterns far ahead, and to safely control the interplay between their squad car and other vehicles along a pursuit route. “The physical control and maneuvering of their squad car becomes automatic,” Lewinski explains. “They don’t have to think about that, so their mind is undistracted from critical decisions that have to be made.

“On the other hand, an officer who has not trained extensively in driving at high speeds will find his attention torn in many directions during a fast pursuit as he tries to focus simultaneously on controlling his vehicle, watching for traffic hazards, tracking the offender’s moves, monitoring other traffic, communicating and coordinating with other responders, and so on. He doesn’t have the skill at ‘reading the game’ and anticipating events that more experienced and highly trained officers have, so less of his performance can be sublimated to automaticity. He’s forced into very high-risk multitasking, and in short order he exhausts his cognitive resources. Something has to be sacrificed.”

A study released recently by the California POST reveals that 35% of vehicle collisions in which LEOs are injured or killed in that State involve “unsafe speeds (though not always connected to pursuits or hot-call responses). Multitasking is acknowledged to be a likely factor in these and other on-duty accidents, although the exact level of involvement is unknown.

It is at least interesting to note that the rate of serious collisions involving officers has surged dramatically over the decade covered by the POST study, at the same time the amount of multitasking a peace officer is challenged to accommodate while driving has increased significantly as well.

For more than a year, the Force Science Institute has been working with the British company a2om (pronounced “atom”) on a project designed to improve the safety of police driving. This is a computer-based system for “immersion” driver “training that marshals the latest scientific understanding of brain processing to improve scanning ability, hazard anticipation and detection, interpretation of traffic patterns, and decision making.

“This project is moving toward completion,” says Lewinski. “Extensive real-world video footage is being assembled and scripted into a preliminary training program, and we expect to begin pilot testing before the end of this summer.”

Ultimately, he predicts, the result will be “an affordable training package that will help law enforcement agencies sharply reduce officer deaths and injuries, better protect the civilian population, and cut the costs and liabilities of driving mishaps.”

[Our thanks to Tom Aveni, executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council, and Bill Spence, Director of Development at the Force Science Institute, for their assistance with this report.]

Leave a Reply


  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.


We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: support@forcescience.org
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.