When Multi-tasking Becomes Supertasking

Multi-tasking has become the subject of research of late.

There is an especially endowed breed of creature lurking among us, according to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, Study digs into the minds of master multi-taskers.

While David Strayer measured how using a cell phone degrades people’s ability to drive safely, the University of Utah cognitive scientist occasionally tested a research subject who defied expectations. About one in 40 of his participants showed no impairment as he or she piloted a vehicle through simulated traffic, while the vast majority demonstrated a handicap on par with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit.

If you have not heard the term ‘supertaskers’ before, well, now you have.

In findings accepted for publication in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the two psychology professors describe “supertaskers,” the 2.5 percent of the population who challenge conventional cognitive theory that the human brain can focus well on just one task at a time.

97.5 % of the population are not particularly adept and adroit at multi-tasking.

These subjects, the rare ones able to drive well while engrossed in a phone conversation, were exposed to simultaneous series of audio and visual signals. The scientists measured their ability to memorize these competing streams. Watson and Strayer found their subjects handily outperformed the control groups.

“Our results suggest that there are supertaskers in our midst: rare but intriguing individuals with extraordinary multitasking ability,” the study reports. “Ultimately, we believe that supertaskers can be leveraged to provide theoretical insight into why cognition does (or doesn’t) break down for other dual-task combinations beyond just cell phones and driving.”

I think maybe somebody has been reading a few too many comic books.

I worry about this kind of focus. ‘Supertasking’ people must be better people, of course, and they should be ruling us. If we worked at it, we could increase the breeding opportunities for such ‘supertaskers’ while restricting the breeding opportunities of ordinary multi-taskers and single-taskers. Close your eyes, the music intones, and you can just imagine ‘the greatness’ of the future.

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t think Strayer’s telling us anything at all. Some people at 0.08 will be consistently better drivers than others at 0.00. Airline pilots and fighter pilots are already self selected, selected and trained.

    “Multi-tasking” is not a brain condition, it’s something that a person can choose to do. But then a “multi tasker” having a bad day can be diagnosed by a shrink as manic.

    • I had another thought, and that is that this ‘supertasking’, when it occurs, probably has a relatively short lifespan. You picture some kid at a video game, and you know this kid isn’t going to be playing the same game in ten, twenty years time. You take a sports champion, too, but this winner of the game is just not going to be there in the years ahead. You can’t do proficiently at forty something what you were doing when you were twenty something. He could test for this kind of thing, too, but it’s a different matter.

      Yep, having a bad day ‘multi-tasking’ could get a person a diagnosis. No question about that.

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