It is a common held belief that men can’t multi-task and women can.
The Warwick Business School professor reveals that when doing something routine and well-practised humans can do two things at once, like driving and talking.
But when anything non-routine is introduced then multi-tasking is just not possible for the human mind.
Professor Chater said: “Most of the things that we find that are reasonably challenging we can only do one at a time. We think we are multi-tasking but in fact we are interleaving from one task to the next quite rapidly, something we don’t have to do if we practice. If we practice we get very fluent at something and it requires almost no mental effort, like driving and listening to the radio.”
When something difficult is added then any semblance of doing two things at once is ended as Professor Chater showed with a simple experiment, like asking what is the capital of Tanzania? That question forced presenter Michael Blastland to stop walking to consider the answer.
“When you are trying to strain your memory or when we have to do something remotely difficult we have to stop doing something else,” said Professor Chater, who is a Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School. “Mental and physical energy is more connected than you imagine.
“We can’t keep mental processes entirely separate from each other. If we are doing routine things that is fine, but if we do something non-routine suddenly other parts of the brain start to engage and interfere with routine things like walking.”
Professor Chater, who is head of the Behavioural Science group at Warwick Business School, reveals how this link between mental and physical energy has real implications. A study of a parole board in Israel showed how their decisions were affected by taking a break and having some food.
Even recognising several people or objects at once seems to be beyond the capability of the human mind.
Professor Chater said: “There are some very interesting demonstrations that suggest that we can’t do that. Some of my colleagues at Warwick Business School have set up some demos on ‘change blindness’ - a phenomenon that suggests we are very limited in our ability to recognise people or objects more than one at a time.”