My colleague Jason Watson and I have been searching for people who have extraordinary multi-tasking ability. In a series of studies, we rigorously tested over 500 drivers between the ages of 18 and 45 in our driving simulator facility to see if anyone could talk on a hands-free cell phone without impairments to driving.
Turns out, about 2% of drivers were able to talk on the phone without impairment. We call these people "supertaskers". They are rare individuals who have a very remarkable multi-tasking ability.
We have been running special tests on the supertaskers to see what makes them different from the rest of us. Some of the tests involve doing brain scans (something called fMRI) to see what parts of their brains become active when they multi-task (the prefrontal cortex appears to play an important role in supertasker's extraordinary multi-tasking ability). We've also tested top-gun military fighter pilots and it looks like they also have supertasker abilities.
Identifying these rare supertaskers is important in helping us understand how the brain handles multi-tasking. These findings also help us understand how the rest of us muddle through multi-tasking. Remember that 98% of drivers showed significant impairments to driving when they were talking on a cell phone. The message you should take away from this is that it is more likely than not that you are not a supertasker.
A few days ago, I talked about our supertasker study on a national public radio station. There were a surprising number of callers who were adamant that they too were supertaskers. I suggested that the odds of this were against them. In fact, our research has found that a great many people overestimate their ability to multi-task (we refer to this as the Lake Wobegon effect after the fictional town where everyone is above average - a statistical impossibility).
Remember, Supertaskers are very rare. Most people are poorer drivers when they talk on a cell phone. To put these odds of being a supertasker in perspective, consider some of the other things that have similarly low odds of occurrence:
- The odds of living to 100 (1%)
- The odds of being audited by the IRS (1%)
- The odds of tossing a coin and getting 6 heads in a row (1.5%)
- The odds of having twins (3%)
- The odds of dying by natural disaster (3%)
If you would like to learn more about our supertasker study, visit www.psych.utah.edu/lab/appliedcognition.