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Our fast-paced world is full of things demanding our attention.

The science behind attention involves two kinds of processes, referred to as automatic and controlled processing.

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Intro to Controlled Processing

Laws prohibiting texting and cellphone use while driving a car continue to make it into the news. The hazards with mixing these activities are well-recognized at this point.

Many of the issues have something to do with where a person’s hands are while they are operating a vehicle. Another issue, however, concerns where a person’s attention is directed while driving. Some scientists have suggested that the diversion of attention and other mental resources away from driving constitutes a greater problem than where a person’s hands are situated. This brings us, in a roundabout way, to the concept of controlled processing.

Definition of Controlled Processing

Controlled Processes are processes in the mind that require a great deal of a person’s mental resources. Generally, controlled processing is best performed when only one controlled activity is taking place.

Automatic Processes are processes that utilize few mental resources, and several of these may take place at the same time. Both types of processing take cognitive resources. Cognition is the name for the mental activity of processing information about the world around us and deciding what to do with that information.An example of a controlled process, as mentioned in the introduction, is driving a car.

In order to safely and successfully drive a car, cognitive resources must be divided between the tasks of watching the road (direction, road signs, hazards), attending to other traffic (brake lights, turn signals), and other miscellaneous tasks. Furthermore, since one’s hands and feet are involved in steering and accelerating, those tasks take cognitive resources as well.Bear in mind that it may be possible to perform multiple instances of controlled processing at once. However, the quality of all the processes will suffer in some way. It is possible to have a conversation on a cellphone, fiddle with the radio, and drive a car at the same time. But this sort of behavior may lead to an accident on the highway.

These accidents are part of the reason for having laws that govern texting and talking on a phone while driving.

Automatic vs. Controlled Processing

There is a line dividing automatic processes from controlled processes, but it is a rather blurry one. Dribbling a basketball, for instance, may be considered an automatic process. One can carry on an animated conversation, walk, and dribble a ball at the same time. However, if one is dribbling a ball in an aggressive attempt at getting past someone defending a basketball hoop, the situation changes.

One needs to position himself and the ball in such a way that the defender cannot steal the ball, all while setting up a scoring attempt.Of course, the earlier example can be conceived as two different things. The first task may be called ‘dribbling a ball’, while the second may be more accurately described as ‘playing basketball.’ Still, it highlights the nature of the line between automatic and controlled processing. In the basketball example, some things that a casual player needs to concentrate on may be done automatically by a skilled player. Some types of controlled processes may thus become automatic with enough experience.In examining the differences between these processes, scientists use very narrowly defined terms to describe them because of the ambiguous division between the two kinds of processes.

Some more examples of automatic processes include smoking a cigarette, shuffling a deck of cards, and rolling dice. These activities generally require a very small cognitive load and an engaging conversation or other activities can be carried on while doing them. Examples of controlled processes include engaging in detailed conversation, driving a car, or playing an engrossing video game.

Lesson Summary

Everything one does may be divided into controlled processes, which are processes in the mind that require a great deal of a person’s mental resources, or automatic processes, which are processes that use very few. Sometimes the line is blurry, but it’s safe to say that controlled processes use many more cognitive resources than automatic processes.

Remember also that cognition refers to the name for the mental activity of processing information about the world around us and deciding what to do with that information. Generally, controlled processes are performed best without distractions, while automatic processes may be multitasked easily.

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