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Multi-tasking is for the birds. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it multiple times. The human brain is not designed to pay attention to more than one task at a time.
Unfortunately, modern society has an expectation that we can and will multi-task and this is where we can get into difficulties, which can sometimes be even life threatening.

You may be aware that driving and using your mobile phone is a bad idea because you are distracted from paying attention to your driving and more at risk of having an accident.

But what about using your phone when not driving, say just walking along the street minding your own business?
That wouldn’t be a problem surely?

Well, actually it might, especially if you are an “older “ adult.

In a study published in “Psychology and Ageing” a group of researchers took a group of 18 undergraduates and 18 older adults (aged 59 to 81) and got them to cross simulated streets of varying difficulty while undertaking one of three tasks.

1. They were either completely undistracted
2. They were listening to music
3. Or they were using a mobile phone.

The findings: that the younger people showed no impairment on dual ask performance. This was interesting as there have been a couple of reported deaths recently where young people have been fatally injured when distracted while texting. In one case a young man fell to his death in a multistorey car park. He simply didn’t realise he was walking towards the edge and the barrier was too low to stop him from falling off.

However back to this study where they found that the older adult group took longer to cross the road when distracted by listening to music and more so this was worse still distraction while talking on a hands free mobile phone. They were more cautious in how they approached actually initiating to cross but this did nothing to improve their safety.
They were also found to be more likely to actually fail to cross the road in the time allocated while talking on their phones.
Having nearly brained myself on several occasions trying to send a text message by walking into traffic signs on the sidewalk (never a good look!) I have realised the folly of my ways and now just stop, answer the phone, send a message or whatever, before trying to walking off to my next destination.

It all makes sense though. Our brain tries to help us in our dual tasking by alternating between tasks, which of course leads to time when we are actually not paying attention to anything.

Perhaps mobile phones need to come with a health warning. Please do not use while in driving in your vehicles or using your legs to walk.

Ref: Mark B. Neider, John G. Gaspar, Jason S. McCarley, James A. Crowell, Henry Kaczmarski, Arthur F. Kramer. Walking and talking: Dual-task effects on street crossing behavior in older adults.. Psychology and Aging, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0021566

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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