Mental processes of multitasking are not well understood and probably few of us look at this from the perspective of flying. We scan and interpret instruments relative to our current flight profile, review the approach, respond to ATC, and—oh yeah—fly the airplane. We might redirect our scan or perform other tasks based on sights, sounds, even smells, or trigger events like passing a waypoint or reaching an altitude.

That mental interrupt process involves storing the details of the existing event for later, gathering the details of the new event, then processing those details and performing that task. When the ongoing interrupted events or tasks exceed a certain number—typically five to seven—the mind has a difficult time making the needed transition. Confusion can impede processing and we can become mentally paralyzed.

Despite the incredible computing power of our brains we are not capable of parallel multitasking. While you might seem to handle more than one task simultaneously, the brain is just rapidly changing its attention. Because this shift happens almost instantaneously, we appear to handle numerous tasks as our brain changes focus in milliseconds.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex is the control center for thoughts and actions. It coordinates the other areas to achieve the desired goals. The cortex cannot process two concepts simultaneously.

There are two steps to focusing, both controlled by the cortex. These are called goal-shifting and rule activation. The first step is the actual change in focus from one goal to another, which happens very quickly. The second, rule activation, gets more complicated. The brain shifts from the “rules” required to accomplish one task (e.g., throttle movement, pitch control, radio communication) to gather the rules for the next task before executing it.

Interrupting the cognitive process to change focus has a cost. Trying to do more than one task at a time often results in more mistakes and more total time. Gathering the required data for the new task can take a long time if the mind is confused or tired. Although these shifts take only milliseconds, that time does add up and taxes the brain.

The body performs some tasks and behaviors almost automatically and the switch is therefore relatively quick—walking and chewing gum. The autonomic nervous system and less critical brain areas control many of these basic actions, and this apparent “multitasking” seems easy. But high-level brain functions like interpreting the attitude indicator and coordinating an approach with ATC is where “multitasking” breaks down, especially when both activities require the same part of the brain. We can ignore some distractions such as tuning out other voices or narrowing our vision to avoid being overwhelmed by our surroundings.

There is a lot more to this analysis than I’m presenting here, but understanding how our brain handles tasks “simultaneously” can help us prioritize our efforts. In our fast-paced, sensory-overloaded, modern world, the ability to multitask seems like an essential skill if you want to survive and thrive.


  1. As I quoted from the classics in my book, “Instrument Flying”, To do two things at once is to do neither.
    ~ Publilius Syrus


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