Years ago, I heard the metaphor, mental fuel, used to refer to attention. I found it appropriate because like gas tanks, our cognitive thought processes hold a limited amount of fuel, and we can determine how quickly we use the fuel, depending on our driving habits. Research has proven that
- we can determine which mental tasks receive the most fuel (attention)
- rehearsed or learned tasks will require less fuel resources (attention).
Research has not confirmed, although highly speculative, multiple tasks can be performed in parallel versus flipping back-and-forth between tasks, and some tasks require a consistent amount of attention, regardless of the situation or other tasks involved (Willingham, 2007).
What about driving and talking? The question remains does our attention flip flop, yet go unnoticed, especially with experienced drivers? Probably so, since the experienced driver may not be giving 100% of their attention to either task. Don’t forget, memory also plays a part. We have practiced certain scripts to the point they no longer present much cognitive load (mental strain).
Research in the mid-1990’s demonstrated that auditory and visual tasks were interlinked and that one could not be compromised without affecting the other. Nevertheless, it was found that two auditory tasks caused more interference than an auditory and visual task. Perhaps, this helps explain why we can drive down a familiar road and chat with a friend, but incessantly get frustrated when talking on the phone, while someone is asking questions in our other ear! Remember, differences attract, and likenesses repel, or at least for attention mileage.
~ Dr. Michelle Doscher
For more information on cognitive processes, check out Daniel Willingham, along with Willingham, D. B. (2001). Cognition: The thinking animal. New York: Prentice Hall. 2nd edition (2004). 3rd edition (2007).