Dr. Bernard J. Baars is former Senior Research Fellow in Theoretical Neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and founding President of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. And he is a guest-blogger on AmAreWay.

Three years ago five young cheerleaders in New York slammed into a truck, killing them all. We know what was going through the driver’s mind in those last seconds because he, or she, was texting it.

Two years ago 25 people died and 100 were injured in a Metrolink commuter train crash. The accident has been attributed to the driver’s texting on the job.

Last August a famous Malibu plastic surgeon drove off a cliff while texting his last words: “Border collie jill surveying the view from atop the sand dune.”

Don’t try this at home, kids, and don’t even think of trying it when you’re driving a car.

What does texting, sexting, and CRASH have to do with Your Conscious Brain?

Well, think about this. Your brain has about 100 billion neurons in its largest structure, the cortex, which directly supports your conscious experiences.

But consciousness has an amazingly narrow moment-to-moment capacity. Don’t believe me? Try reading this sentence and patting your head at the same time. One of the two will suffer — either you’ll “tune out” of what you’re reading, or your patting rhythm will suffer. Which is why good rock drummers really have to pay attention to what they are doing.

The three fatal accidents above happened because of conscious limited capacity — in spite of having those 100 billion neurons all firing away at the same time.

Why is that? That’s one of the basic questions about consciousness and the brain. We don’t know the answer, but we are sure that it’s so.

You can be texting with full attention, or sexting with full attention. Or driving with full attention.

But not two out of the three. And certainly not three out of the three.

When you read about an airplane accident due to “pilot error,” there’s a very good chance that conscious limited capacity was one of the fatal factors.

That can happen in two ways.

The pilot can be distracted, as in the texting accidents we mentioned above. Or, the pilot can be so used to the cockpit routines that he “goes on automatic.” We can rely so much on our habit driving down the same street every day, that we just don’t notice the little kid running across the street. It’s never happened before, so why would you expect it?

Bottom line: We can get mixed up either because of the limits of conscious processes, or because of habitual un-conscious processing. Everything we do well is a mixture of those two processing modes.

A juggler or a baseball player can seem to do several things at the same time because, after 5,000 hours of practice, a lot of things are automatic.

I suspect that people who commit text-o-cide might have fallen victim to a third big factor, namely “switching time,” the time it takes to grasp what’s going on in traffic after looking at your flow of text.

Human beings always underestimate the time we need to switch from one thing to another. The famous plastic surgeon who drove off the cliff in Malibu with his Border Collie probably thought he could switch his attention back to driving any time. The text-o-cider who slammedinto a truck might actually have seen the truck coming.

Because we all think that we can switch from one thing to another instantly, in zero amount of time, we tend to believe that we can literally “time-share.” It seems like a single conscious instant to go from texting to driving.

But our conscious brains don’t work that way.

Switching actually takes much longer, from a fraction of a second to several seconds, because when we go back to looking at the road we often have to re-orient ourselves to the visual scene. Something has changed on the road, and our brains haven’t done their constant updating, a process that may happen four times a second. So we are flipping not just from text to the road, we are traveling between two mental scenes. That takes time.

Human brains are not digital computers. Computers can get away with time sharing.

Human brains are different because of the dance of conscious focusing and unconscious automaticity.

Be nice to your conscious brain, and it will be nice to you. Give it plenty of space to be itself. It’s not a machine. It’s the basis of who you are.

(Examples cited by Michael Fumento in the Los Angeles Times, latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-fumento-texting-20101003,0,7690873.story)

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