How many others have driven to work and then can’t remember their drive to work? This has happened to me many times. I get so focused on what needs done when I get home from work or there was a bunch of good songs on the radio and I sang along with them without any recollection of driving. This is an example of automatic processing. Driving has become so automatic to me after all these years of driving that it does not take up much of my cognitive resources or is also known as a low-load task.
I have also left the house and frantically worried if I shut off my hair straightener and then returned home to it not only being shut off, unplugged from the outlet, but also hung back up on the organizer that I store it on. This is another example of automatic processing. This is something that I do automatically without paying any attention to my actions.
Driving may have become an automatic process but if a deer jumps out across the road or another circumstance occurs I snap to attention and turn off my “auto pilot” mode as I call it and pay closer attention to the task at hand. This is when the “easy or well-practiced” task becomes “more difficult and you need to devote all cognitive resources to driving” or also called a high-load task (Goldstein, E. Bruce, 2011, p. 87, 93).
All of these examples are also examples of divided attention. Driving and thinking, driving and singing, driving and avoiding a deer that could jump out across the road, and shutting off the hair straightener while thinking about getting out the door for work are all things we do with our divided attention. Divided attention is performing two or more tasks at once.
Divided attention can be an automatic process with an easy or well-practiced task or a controlled process when the task is harder. Easier tasks are considered low-load tasks and harder tasks are considered high-load tasks. Practice can turn those high-load tasks from a controlled processes to an automatic process without you even intending to do it.
Goldstein, E. Bruce. (2011). Cognitive psychology connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.