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Cognitive issues around multitasking

Consciously paying attention

We know a biker, let's call him Donald. He often led groups for his local riding club. Donald loves his toys, and his big cruiser has all the mod cons, including CB radio, GPS and a sound system.

Donald often got into trouble, especially when he went off his GPS route. His GPS would talk to him, telling him how to get back on track. When this happened, Donald would lose it, wander all over the road, speed up and slow down unpredictably, which at times put members of his group in danger. He'd change lanes suddenly in front of cages, that sort of thing. Several of the riders in the group refused to ride with him in the end, and Donald no longer leads rides.

Riding, even solo, demands multitasking. You attention is divided between controlling the bike, monitoring the traffic situation, looking out for surface problems, implementing maneuvers, monitoring your own condition and the bike's and navigating to your destination. When you are leading a group, you are doing all these and also monitoring the group and the tail gunner (drag rider). Donald would lose it when the GPS intervened, and he would dither and become indecisive. In effect, his whole operation collapsed, and he became unable to ride coherently.

Consciousness and Working Memory.

We look to current cognitive theory for an explanation. (Definition here).

Here's a paper from 'Psyche Journal', and others from 'Trends in Cognitive Science' and Wiki which we think shed light on Donald's issue.

Working Memory is a set of from five to nine areas, which are used to store information about tasks in progress. While different people's number of working memory slots vary, for a given person, their number doesn't change much, except due to the aging process.

Working memory is associated with conscious thought processes and with paying attention.

skullTasks can get into working memory two ways. One is when you decide to pay attention to some task or objective. The subconscious can also raise matters to our attention.

From a riding point of view, we might decide to pay attention to an oncoming cage that looks like it might turn left. Or we might check the gas gauge. Alternatively, we might be forced to pay attention to a cage that suddenly changes lane in front of us, cutting us off. We can also train ourselves to pay attention to items of interest. Think what happens when you see another motorcyclist, for instance.

Clearing a working memory slot makes it available for other use. This usually happens by completing a task or by dismissing a potential issue as not a problem. Examples of this might happen when we pass the car that was getting ready to turn left in the previous example, or when we finish fueling the bike and close the fuel cap.

They've done experiments around this. Overloading someone's working memory causes dithering, which is an inability to make effective decisions. Usually, all tasks in progress suffer, and the subject is confused and ineffectual for a significant number of seconds. There are many practical applications of this theory, including fighter jet heads-up displays, where the avionics has to limit the number of objects on the display to avoid overloading the pilot's working memory.

This is definitely a problem if you are riding your motorcycle at the time, especially if there are dangers around. Even worse if the issue that overloaded your working memory is a cage turning right in front of you, or some other imminent crash causation.

The key words that give us a clue that working memory is being talked about are consciousness and attention. If we are conscious of something, or paying attention to it, working memory is probably being used. Working memory theory is considered to be conventional in the cognitive science field, and there's a large body of experimental results to back it up.

Working Memory versus Muscle Memory

Some tasks, typically those we are skilled at, don't occupy much working memory. Educators call these skills 'learned to muscle memory'. All that means is that we have learned the skill so well that our unconscious takes care of it, and we usually only become conscious of the process when a problem comes up, or if we decide to think about it.

An example of muscle memory might be walking, a complex skill that we don't have to think about. Or possibly a quick stop, if we've been practicing it enough.

When we learn new skills, we go through a process where the new skill uses a lot of our working memory. With practice of the skill, eventually the task is learned to 'muscle memory'. This means that we can perform this routine task unconsciously. It no longer occupies a slot in working memory unless something non-routine happens. Think about how hard a baby has to work at learning to walk, and how we now do it without any thought.

When learning to ride, we start out having to pay a lot of attention to the bike controls. During the basic rider course, we are aways thinking about which control to use, and how. But after we get our bikes out, in quiet local streets, and do some practice, we are free to kick our ride up a notch, because the basic bike control is now in muscle memory.

Interestingly, when we have to think about a muscle memory skill, our execution becomes clunky and the skill seems to go away. That's because muscle memory is quick and efficient while there are bottlenecks around working memory, making it slower. Often when we think about things like countersteering, turns that were once slick become clunky and laborious. And everyone has gone through the agony of relearning skills learned with bad form the first time.

When we learn basic riding control to muscle memory, that frees some working memory for the other essential bike skills. We learn to monitor traffic patterns, develop situational awareness, scan for surface hazards, evalutate possible issues and maneuver early to avoid problems. We're also occasionally monitoring our physical states and that of the bike. Additionally, we have to give some thought to our route, and plan maneuvers to get to our destination.


The process of learning to ride is demanding. As we learn the stack of skills needed to ride well, there are a lot of demands on our working memories. mind

This is why we pay attention to getting ready to ride. One objective of getting ready is to get our minds ready for the ride. A large percentage of crashes happen within 12 minutes of home. We can't afford to wait until we are on the road to get our consciousness in tune with the riding tasks.

Preoccupations can be lethal. Problems at work or home can use a vital working memory slot. We need to forget outside problems before we start. We can set up cues in our ride-readiness routine to cleanse our minds of outside worries. As Lee Parks puts it, we need to get in the zone.

We also need to limitl our risk exposure at first and work at an appropriate level for our skills. When we are still learning the basic controls, we don't need to also be trying to survive in heavy urban traffic. When we start dealing with traffic, we'll need all the available memory slots to monitor the riding situation and search, evaluate and execute.

Navigation is a concern. We feel that initially, while figuring out how to ride in traffic, we should keep to familiar routes and streets, so we don't have to pay a lot of attention to navigation issues. Looking out for unfamiliar streets, reading street name plaques or road identification markings, sorting out our direction of travel, consulting maps or GPS, and looking for house numbers demands a lot of attention.

Like in Donald's case, gadgets and toys on the bike also demand attention. A GPS or a CB can be a valuable tool, but not if you don't have an available working memory slot to deal with them.

Stepping Up

Our conclusion is that the path to riding competence is difficult. Basic skills need to be learned to muscle memory. Working memory slots need to be available for riding, search, evaluation and execution. Navigation and planning maneuvers compete for working memory space. And we need to keep a working memory slot available to deal with unexpected emergencies.

We also need to have our evasion maneuvers learned to muscle memory by constant practice. There isn't time in tha average street emergency to think our way out of the problem, as we discussed, working memory is slower than muscle memory.

We think that one of the benefits of practicing situational awareness techniques, is that if we are already monitoring a potential problem, like a car that might turn left in front of us, that when the car actually starts to enter our path, we already have the problem in working memory and can quickly deploy a muscle-memory evasion, hopefully early enough to avoid a crash. If we ignore the turning cage until it is in front of us, and we don't happen to have a free working memory slot, we're unlikely to deal with the problem efficiently, as survival demands.

Everyone can remember moments of shock and horror when confronted by a sudden threat. Military doctrine makes a fetish of exploiting the temporary confusion that it brings. Surprise is a huge advantage militarily, but big problem if you are riding.

On a bike, outrunning working memory can be fatal, and we all need to consider how to conserve this vital cognitive asset. Failure is likely to lead to dithering, indecisiveness and universal task failure just when we need it most. We think this might be a common reason for poor crash evasion.

We might need to consider the health of our working memory when we start to ride, or when riding conditions change. For example, when we complete a long slab ride, we might want to switch off the music or stop composing haikus when we hit our big city objective during rush hour. It might be OK to keep our minds busy on the superslab by voluntarily accepting additional tasks for our consciousness, but focusing on traffic will demand all our faculties, and this is something we can control.

Learning the discipline to be aware of the state of our working memory could save our lives some day.


Everybody's consciousness and attention resources are different, we need to find where our limits are and work within them. We also should expect that our cognitive abilities, our riding and working memory will suffer with advancing age, and be ready to reduce our exposure when we notice this process. Assuming we are lucky or skilled enough to achieve advanced age, that is.