Supertaskers: Why Some Can Do Two Things at Once

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This is what happens when we talk and drive — our cell-phone conversation diverts attention away from the road, so our driving ability suffers. In fact, in the study, the scientists found that the majority of students took 20% longer to brake while using a cell phone, and let their following distance behind a pace car stretch out 30%, compared to when they were not talking on the phone.

Watson and Strayer are now following up their work with more intensive analysis of the brain function of these supertaskers. Not only are they talented multitaskers, says Watson, but they also seem to perform better than others on memory tests to begin with. He and his team are now imaging the brains of these individuals while they complete such tasks, and are comparing their neural activity to that of non-supertaskers to ferret out any biological or genetic differences that might explain their unique abilities.

It's possible that supertaskers are tapping into several other mental mechanisms to maintain performance. For instance, they may be able to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously simply by better allocating their attention — in other words, they may be able to triage information as it comes in, disregarding irrelevant and distracting information and focusing only on the inputs that are critical to performing a given task.

That's what Daphne Bavelier, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, thinks might be occurring in the supertasker equivalents she has seen in her lab. Bavelier studies the effect of action-video-game playing on people's ability to split attention and multitask. In her work, she has found that people who devote five hours or more per week to such action games for a year show the same heightened performance abilities as Watson and Strayer's supertaskers.

Bavelier is now conducting further studies of these individuals to figure out why their multitasking abilities improved and whether the skill can be learned by other people. "Possibly, their allocation of resources is more flexible and more targeted to the type of information that is immediately relevant," she says. "They might be less distracted by irrelevant noise and therefore able to put more of their resources toward the task at hand."

Both Bavelier and the Utah scientists are interested in performing more long-term studies of young children, who, thanks to advances in technology, seem to be naturally more adept at multitasking — texting, talking, listening to music and doing their homework all at once — than previous generations. The researchers are especially eager to find out whether supertasking can be trained or learned, and to see if the average person can enhance his or her multitasking ability simply through practice.

Watson, for one, believes it's possible, especially in children whose everyday environment makes them increasingly proficient at splitting their attention among tasks. But for the time being, he's not urging people to train themselves by chatting on the phone while driving. "Most of us are in the 97.5% who will be impaired when we talk and drive," he says. Even if we think we aren't.

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