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Technology, cops, and the myths of multitasking

How does multitasking affect humans?

By PoliceOne Staff 

Multitasking. Harummph. The term didn’t even exist when I was in college. Well, maybe it did — in a laboratory somewhere — but you would never have heard it in conversation intermixed with discussions of Jefferson Airplane, Haight-Ashbury, and the like. We were waaaaaay too busy not trusting anyone over 30 years old.

The term multitasking got its birth in a computer lab. Here is a short history lesson. In prehistoric times (the 70s), computers could only do one task at a time. There was no task bar, there were no icons, and a mouse had a pulse (until it didn’t). Egads!

Monitors displayed only text and that was often green or orange letters on a black background (I can hear you shrieking). One program at a time. My college roommate majored in computer sciences. He would encrypt his program on IBM cards. He would then make an appointment to get the program tested — run at the computer center at three o’clock in the morning because it was the only time available. Computers — even very large ones — only ran one program at a time.

As the technology became more sophisticated, users demanded more than the one-program-at-a-time approach. Voila! We have the invention of multitasking.

Never mind that computer processors could still only do one thing at a time, a fact that remains true to this very day. We’ve been hoodwinked, bilked, duped. Hold on a minute, before you return your brand new Pentium processor ...here’s the rest of the story.

What is really happening?
Software coders started lacing programs with “interrupts.” Allow me to be a little technical with an example: the central processor is doing one thing (such as running Microsoft Outlook). The programmers built interrupts into Outlook telling the processor, “You can pause working for me here to check and see if anyone else wants something.”

The processor quickly switches to something else, if needed, and when it hits an interrupt in that program, it switches back to Outlook. We humans get fooled. We think the computer is doing two things at once because it is happening so fast. Not so.

So, how does multitasking affect humans? The result of clinical research shows that because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When people attempt to complete many tasks at once, “or alternate rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer — often double the time or more — to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” states Meyer. This is largely because “the brain is compelled to restart and refocus.”

Today’s squad car demands that I multitask
I know. Cops are expected to: drive safely, stay aware of bad stuff happening in their immediate area, attend to the radio, run plates in the computer, answer calls, react instantly to the chirp of the Nextel, make sure the video camera is working and talk on the cell phone to their wife, girlfriend, or both. (Ahem.)

I also realize that humans are truly able to multitask. We do it by stratifying all of the events coming our way. We put familiar, comfortable, repeatable stuff at a very low priority. The more new, more dangerous, more unfamiliar an activity, the more it demands focused attention.

Some stuff just falls into what I term, “ambient awareness.” Ever ride with a brand-new driver? Remember when you were one? Your eyes were glued to the road. Now, not so much. Why? Because driving has become familiar and comfortable. You can attend to it as a peripheral item which allows you to simultaneously focus on other stuff around you.

There IS and absolute limit
You can take that fact to the bank. The limit comes from your total ability to process information at one time. It could be a lot from a single source, i.e. a very intense video game, a gun battle, etc. or it could be a little stimuli from many places, like driving and all the other stuff mentioned earlier.

Here’s what is likely to kick your ass: your capacity drops as you run out of energy. The body concentrates dwindling energy supplies on vital organs, like the heart. Hence, your brain goes without. Worse, your senses get slashed in the process, too.

Yup, you’ve got it! If you are really tired or hungry, there may be stuff happening right in front of you that you don’t hear and you don’t see. Sorry, Charlie, that’s just the way we’re designed.

While hunger can usually be fixed rapidly, lack of rest cannot. Therefore, when those energy supplies get low, you need to lay low until they are restored.

Happily, you can also expand your capacity to handle stimulus through exercise. Just like making your arms too big for your uniform shirt by exercising them hard at the gym, you can do the same to your brain.

What, exactly, can I do?
If you saw the movie Rain Man you saw the depiction of an individual with what is called Savant Syndrome. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s character can recall the number of matches dropped on the floor in a single glance. As we know of people who can perform incredible feats that we “normal” humans would find impossible.

Scientists don’t know what the exact capabilities of the human brain are. They have found that we use a small portion of the brain’s potential and that we can grow, develop, and build its capabilities. The brain can be trained to see and distinguish objects at lightening speed and improve accurate retention.

Clearly, this kind of speed improvement would be a tremendous benefit in meeting today’s demands for Multitasking.

During World War II, the military was having a problem with pilots shooting down our own aircraft because at high speed they could not distinguish the difference between friendly and enemy aircraft.

A psychologist developed a system to flash visual images of both enemy and friendly aircraft at fractions of a second. As the pilots practiced watching the images, their brains began to adapt to seeing them at high speeds. With practice, they were able to instantly distinguish enemy vs. friendly aircraft at hyper speeds.

Training for cops is available today: Rapid Threat Recognition1. This skill-based program requires using a different part of the brain than we normally employ (which is what is what makes it so effective). You begin using the part of your brain that can recognize images many times faster than the cognitive part of your brain.

Here is an exercise you can try as you are patrolling. Look very quickly at a license number of a car in front of you. Quickly look away and try to recall the entire number. Now look back and see if you are correct. With practice your brain will begin to adapt to see the plate as a whole number.

You are learning to quickly switch between tasks. You are learning to recognize elements of your environment without logically evaluating them. You are improving the speed at which you are processing stimuli in your environment. Sounds terrific, eh?

What is the plan of action?
Your ability to multitask is greater than a computer. The machine can only handle one thing at a time. Your brain truly can Multi-Task. But, you do have limits. Too much high-intensity stuff will blow your mental circuit breakers. Also, low energy supplies cut your “mental strength.” Handling 315 lbs. on the mental bench press won’t cut it when your energy is low. Don’t try that maneuver or you’re likely to end up with the bar on your brain’s neck.

Bodily needs and raw emotions drain you, as well. Do you desperately need a bathroom break? Are you so hungry that your stomach growls louder than the radio? Did you have a big fight with your wife just before the shift? Are you so horny that you are going crazy? Are you feeling stressed-out over money or something else? This is the time to keep your head down. You are not mentally ready to become the town hero, at the moment.

Recognize the symptoms. Listen to your mind, body and soul. If it is screaming “overload,” you truly need to pay attention to that message. We have all been there — even those who don’t want to admit it have been there, too. We understand.

I’d rather see a brother take a short break than to be visiting him in the hospital (or worse, the funeral home). That’s a show-stopper.

After all, it’s all about saving just ONE life.

1The Rapid Recognition System™ has been developed by Observation On Demand (O2D), specifically for Law Enforcement. It helps cops to multi-task more safely and recognize threats more quickly. For further, contact John Demand at jdemandjr@aol.com or (847) 275-9590.

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