Prof. Nilli Lavie of University College, London, is fascinated by a paradox that must occur to anyone who watches their fellow citizens go in and out of mental focus: “How is it that we are sometimes extremely distracted by information we really wish to ignore and at other times we are so focused that we can’t take in important events right in front of us?”
Her theory is that the brain will process every bit of information it can handle within its capacity: Our neural machinery can’t be shut down at will, and if the task we’re engaged in doesn’t stretch us far enough, we’ll keep increasing our load.
Walking down a city street, for example, seems so simple. And so, confusing the basic act of locomotion with the hazardous scene we’re traversing, we add a smartphone to the mix.
Big mistake: “The brain has a limited processing capacity,” says Prof. Lavie, “and when it’s flooded with high information load, it shuts out any information that is not considered task-relevant. And then there’s simply no capacity left for other stimuli like the cars, people and street poles that we bump into.”
“We make very bad assumptions about what we’re good at,” says Prof. MacLeod. “We think we’re ‘multitaskers’ and really we’re not. Our brain allows us to switch attention fairly quickly. But we don’t always realize we’re switching. We think we’re doing two things at once, and so we get fooled.”
This reluctance to accept our mental limits means that everyday neurological issues are often discussed as if they were problems of civility – how dare you message-sending hordes walk straight into me, or obnoxiously talk so loudly on your cellphone? While it’s true that we’re not always thinking about the people all around us, it’s not because we mean to be rude. It’s that our brains are somewhere else.
For the massed city-dwellers of the 21st century, everyday life will offer a constant series of such brain-testing temptations, and how well we respond depends on our willingness to understand that the brain’s strengths are often its limits.
It’s a neurological feat that we can walk or drive and talk on the phone at the same time. But that doesn’t mean that we can do both things well – let alone incorporate the instant alerts a city sends our way, without the benefit of a personalized ring tone.