The traffic jam in your head (now with Slashdot goodness)

By Carl Zimmer | November 20, 2010 9:50 am

My new brain column for Discover is online, and it’s about one of the weirder failings of our mind: the way our thoughts can get stuck in a traffic jam. When we are required to do two things in quick succession–like answer a cell phone and hit the brakes–our brains freeze up for an instant. Researchers have known about this so-called psychological refractory period for decades, but they’re still trying to figure out how, and why, it happens. As I explain in my column, this inner weakness may actually reveal an inner strength. Check it out. (And thanks to Slashdot for the tsunami of link love.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (4)

  1. Carl,

    Interesting effect on this article. I tried following the link from via Reeder on my iPhone and I got a partial pay-to-view page. I think it was a Mobilizer effect.

    When I went to the original page, or used my browser, I got the full article.

    It reminded me, however, that soon many of the things you link to (NYT, etc) will be subscriber only.

    When that happens can you start doing what you do for tattoos -> put a “subscriber” warning in the link? (I think it was my request that started that).

    Then we’ll known when not to bother. This Discover ‘pay-to-play’ hit today is a bit of a false alarm, but we know the real thing is coming.

  2. johnk


    Very interesting article. I hadn’t heard of most of this research.

    But I’d argue with one point you made. You say, “we are very good at doing many things at once” (regulating heart rate, drinking coffee, perceiving a melody). As I see it, we can do many “automatic” things at once, but the conscious system, in general, works one-at-a-time. That’s why we can’t talk on a cell phone and drive effectively. We can put driving on auto-pilot, but then it looses efficiency. Although we clearly do things in parallel, I’m struck by the inefficiencies.

    The “attention system” may be identical to the conscious system. By introspection, its very hard to have divided attention. We may be drinking a cup of coffee while talking on the phone, but the drinking part is not a focus of attention. There are studies (which I can’t cite) that say we perform differently when attending to the action — and not always better. This applies to sports and sports training. Thinking about components of your stroke during tennis does not always improve your tennis.

    Reading your summary of Dehaene’s work, I think this is compatible. But the “switching jam” that Dehaene describes does not account for the ability to carry on behaviors in parallel. My guess is that some behaviors can really be carried on in parallel, with no loss. Heart-rate regulation and talking on a cell phone. But, for many behaviors, there is “multiplexing”. The attention/conscious system is fairly rapidly going back and forth. But switching takes time and results in loss of efficiency.


  3. johnk

    Follow up to John Gordon;

    I enjoy reading and discussing Carl’s articles in Discover. Many of the discussion points are fascinating. But the articles don’t have comments sections. The commentaries on Carl’s articles are found in Carl’s blog that is part of Discover’s web site. But I don’t see any links from the articles themselves. Shouldn’t this be fixed?

  4. Robin

    Consciousness alone must put a terrible strain on the ‘router’, as well, if it is used at all for such functions (could there be an separate auto-router?). When I drive, I use my vision to scan ahead, am aware peripherally, scan my three mirrors, occasionally scan the gauges, follow learned directions to where I’m going, notice minor things along the way that weren’t there before, and much more. Interesting how this may figure in the scenario.

    Besides the bottleneck at the router, I wonder how ‘self-induced’ failures figure in. Let me explain. I have been a regular runner for many years and recently jumped on the barefoot running bandwagon. While I have excellent running form (forefoot strike, no over striding), I cautiously adjusted to my new weird shoes. If, for one second, I thought about my foot form/strike, wham, right on my heel. I really believe some tasks are best left to auto-pilot. What an incredible and fascinating organ.

    Another great article, Carl. sorry I missed it on /..


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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