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Chances Are, You’re Not A Supertasker

10 January 2013
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Kim Schuske
Chances Are, You’re Not A Supertasker White House (Shealah Craighead)

The phone is ringing, the baby is crying, emails, texts and tweets keep coming. We’re constantly bombarded and frequently have to do more than one thing at the same time. Most of us think we’re good at multitasking, but 99% of us are not. University of Utah researchers think people who actually are good at multitasking might choose certain professions that require their unique skills.

Viet Pham is co-chef and co-owner of Forage restaurant in Salt Lake City. ”One of my favorite dishes would probably have to be the vegetable garden.”

Pham and his business partner Bowman Brown offer a tasting menu where a diner can get between 14 to 17 different bite sized courses. “It has anywhere between 25 to 35 different components on the dish and we’ll use a lot of different various vegetables that are cooked in different methods producing different textures and flavors.”

He says some things on their menu change every day and some of the courses are complex. When the place is full and everyone is on a different small course, it begs the question, how do they keep it all straight without messing up? “I think part of being a great cook just in general is you have to be able to multitask and work under pressure,” says Pham.

For some professions like high end chef, fighter pilot, or NFL quarterback, multitasking is essential.  And it turns out, these professions may be exactly the ones that attract – a supertasker. There are very few of those.  Most of us are forced to multitask.  And we aren’t very good at it. David Strayer is a psychology professor at the University of Utah. He found that one multitasking event many of us do, driving while talking on the phone, is a really bad idea. “A lot of times people are so distracted by the cell phone they don’t know that they’re actually driving impaired. The person in the next car behind them will clearly say yeah that person just ran a stop sign and they’re weaving all over the place. But the person on the phone doesn’t notice it.”

Prior research suggested there is always a cost when people try to split their attention between tasks.  But Strayer and psychologist Jason Watson wanted to find out if this is really true. So they developed a challenging test that only the most skilled multitaskers could pass. Student subjects were put into a driving simulator and at the same time they received a call on a hands-free cell phone. “And so it was a conversation that involved memorizing strings of words that were presented as well as solving math problems.”

The students were asked if the math problems were correct, and then at the end asked to list the words in order. Up to five math problems and words could be included in a single conversation. And at the same time Watson says, ”Individuals were asked to follow at some specified distance a lead vehicle that occasionally would press its brakes. And then at that point in time you were supposed to press your brakes. And so we measured people’s reaction time to that task and then their following distance from the lead vehicle.”

The vast majority of people did far worse when doing both tasks than when they did only one task at a time. Their brake reaction time was much longer and they tended to follow the lead vehicle at a greater distance. In addition, their memory and math performance suffered. But out of the 1,000 students tested, the researchers have found 12 who didn’t have worse driving performance and on average performed better on the memory and math tasks while they were driving. They call these people supertaskers. Strayer says it was a surprise to find people with this ability.

“To be honest when we first found some of these supertaskers we thought this must be something wrong with the way we analyzed the data. So we went back and looked in a number of different ways to see if in fact there was something idiosyncratic or odd about the way we ran the experiments. And turns out, 'no', these people really did behave in ways that showed extraordinary ability.”

Now that they’ve found supertaskers, Strayer and Watson are trying to figure out what makes them different. And to do that they’re looking at their brains. Watson uses MRI, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, to look at the brain while supertaskers and non-supertasker are performing different tests. The researchers aren’t looking at the structure of the brain, but instead want to know if the brains of supertaskers function differently. And surprisingly Watson says they do. “They seem to be able to achieve those high levels of performance with less metabolic resources, less brain activity.”  

Watson and Strayer say the imaging studies show that frontal lobe regions of supertaskers brains are more efficient while multitasking. But they still don’t know how that occurs. It could be supertaskers brains are better connected or use chemical signals more efficiently. Watson says they’re now looking at these possibilities. He adds that the brain imaging studies have given them a clue for a possible gene that could be involved. “The one that seems to be really critical at this point in time is called the COMT gene. And it’s responsible for regulation of dopamine in these frontal executive networks.”

They're in the process of collecting DNA samples to test if this gene is different in supertaskers.

Beyond the sheer joy of doing research and finding out more about how the brain multitasks, what can this research tell us about ourselves? Strayer says from a practical point, it may help explain certain job choices. “There are certainly some occupations that tend to rely on multitasking more than others. Think about that chef at a high end restaurant, who’s able to produce five or six different meals cooked to perfection.”

Viet Pham from Forage agrees. “I think I have great skills at multitasking because if I didn’t have good skills at multitasking I don’t think I would be able to run this restaurant.”

Strayer says they’re scanning the brains of fighter pilots to see if the data matches what they see in other supertaskers. He also says they’re developing a web-based test that will give you a multitasking score. When that’s ready maybe people can decide if they should get in a fighter jet, or stay on the ground. For now, all of us should either drive or talk on a cell phone, but not both.

This story originally aired 3/14/11

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