The title of this post is identical to Chapter 2 of Elizier J. Sternberg’s “Neurologic: The brain’s Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.” I believe all of us who drive have had the experience of driving someplace and having no memory of the drive itself. We might as well been a Zombie during the drive. So there you have the answer to the question posed in the title of the chapter. The chapter is about how our unconscious minds perform well-trained behaviors while doing something else. Sometimes we can perform some behaviors that have not been previously practiced. Sternberg provides an example in which a man was able to drive to a house and murder someone without having any conscious awareness of it. Moreover, he was acquitted of murder at his trial on the grounds that he had no conscious intention of murdering someone and that all this was the result of non conscious processing.
A large part of this chapter is devoted to multi-tasking, and how we are able to multi-task. However, he never mentions the costs of multi-tasking, and I regard this failure as being not just highly irresponsible, but dangerously irresponsible. There have been many healthy memory posts on the dangers of multi-tasking. Enter “multitasking” or “Strayer” into the healthy memory blog search block to find some os these posts. Sternberg even cites some of Strayer’s research in the chapter, but never mentions the risk of multi-tasking that is the point of Strayer’s research.
I think a distinction can be made between intentional multi-tasking and unintentional multi-tasking. Unintentional multi-tasking is more commonly known as distraction or mind wandering. There was an article in the February 21 Washington Post (A14) by Michael Laris titled “Why Do Metro rail operators keep running red signals?”
Red signals indicate that a train should go no further until the signal changes, just as on the road. But according to the Federal Transit Administration there have been at least 47 “red signal” violations since the beginning of 1912. And some of these violations ended just short of some very severe accidents.
It is important to realize that these are not incompetent or careless individuals. If we understand how our conscious attention works, they can be quite understandable. Under one situation in which there was single tracking, the operator responded to the red signal and stopped. He waited for the train to pass. In most cases only one train passes. However, in this case there was a second train. As the operator was expecting only a single train, he ignored the red signal and proceeded and found that a second train was coming. Fortunately, he stopped and a collision was avoided.
In another case, a novice operator out for her first run boarded a train on the wrong track. This was her first actual day on the job and she was overwhelmed. She gave the controller the number of the track she was on, but the controller failed to tell her that she was on the wrong train and she proceeded. Again, the mistake was corrected before a collision occurred.
Another operator was told that a complaint had been levied against her to which she ended to respond. This distracted and she missed the red signal.
It is not unusual for people to respond and think that they actually performed correctly., but the documented evidence is to the contrary. Personally, I have had many such experiences where I am virtually certain that I saw or did something, but the facts indicate that I was in error.
It should be noted that similar problems trouble Transportation Security Administration agents gazing at X-ray images and surgeons peering into incisions.
It needs to be realized that multitasking always entails costs. And that cost is more the the sum of the costs of the multiple tasks being performed. There is also a cost to switching between between or among the multiple tasks. If the task is important, concentrate on that task and devote all your attention to it.
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