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Context Switching In Your Mind

November 23, 2012

I first encountered the term context switching in connection with computers, where the CPU switches frequently between tasks.  Each time the CPU begins executing a new program, it must reload all the state information for that program.  It’s possible that your mind behaves in the same way.

Did you ever walk from one room to another with the intention of doing something there, only to have forgotten what it was when you arrived?  You will be relieved to hear that this is quite a normal thing, and that your memory is not failing after all.  Your mind does a context switch when you change rooms.  It must discard all the context of the old room, and must acquire the context of the new one, because your environment changed.  Your errand was part of the old context.  That’s why it was forgotten.  The remidy is simply to bring a reminder with you.  When you see that, you will recall why you went there.

A more serious example is driving and talking on the phone at the same time.  This is often called multi-tasking, but what’s really happening is that your mind is switching contexts rapidly to give the illusion of handling two situations at the same time.  One context is the car and road and traffic.  The other is a conversation with somebody at another location, immersed in their own situation.  You don’t have full control of either context.  Your mind can’t focus on both contexts at the same time.  Inevitably you will miss part of one situation while you are focused on the other.  Both contexts have an element of risk.  You may have an accident while you are driving.  You may misunderstand the conversation.  Using a hands-free phone doesn’t help with the main problem, context switching.  The only way is to avoid using a phone while driving.

Of course, there are many distractions that occur while driving.  How is a conversation with a passenger in your car different from a phone conversation?  The passenger and you are both in the driving situation, with less need for you to switch contexts.  As well, you have more control over the situation; if you stop talking, the passenger will understand why you did that.  Still, there’s some increased danger here.  What about something as common as listening to the radio while driving?  It may not even be a distraction, but just something in the background.  You can always ignore the radio when you need to focus your attention on driving.

Yes, there are many distractions while driving.  You can manage most of these quite easily.  The ones that require context switching are the most difficult to manage.  They carry the most risk of inattention, perhaps leading to an accident.

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