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Are you a 'supertasker'? Probably not

Small elite really can chat and drive safely, say profs

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Trick-cyclists in America say they have discovered that about 2.5 per cent of the human race are so-called "supertaskers", able to do more than one thing at a time without loss of performance. In particular, supertaskers can drive safely while talking on the phone.

"According to cognitive theory, these individuals ought not to exist," says psych Jason Watson of the University of Utah. "Yet, clearly they do, so we use the supertasker term as a convenient way to describe their exceptional multitasking ability. Given the number of individuals who routinely talk on the phone while driving, one would have hoped that there would be a greater percentage of supertaskers. And while we'd probably all like to think we are the exception to the rule, the odds are overwhelmingly against it."

Watson and fellow Utah trick-cyclist David Strayer checked out 200 people's ability to hold a phone conversation involving memorisation of words and solving maths problems while driving along a motorway (in a simulator, though). Almost all the study subjects, as one would expect, drove more poorly than they did without the convo. They also did worse at the memory tasks and sums than when they weren't driving.

But the small elite group of supertaskers' driving and maths skills were unchanged by doing both at once, and their memorisation actually improved slightly while driving.

"There is clearly something special about the supertaskers," says Strayer. "Why can they do something that most of us cannot? Psychologists may need to rethink what they know about multitasking in light of this new evidence. We may learn from these very rare individuals that the multitasking regions of the brain are different and that there may be a genetic basis for this difference. That is very exciting. Stay tuned."

The two trick-cyclists are now doing a study on some fighter pilots, to see if - as one might hope and expect - there is a higher proportion of supertaskers among them. It's impossible to fly a fighter successfully without being able to do several things at once: to give just one example, talking on comms while flying is actually mandatory.

Watson and Strayer's paper is to be published later this year in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, but in the meantime you can read it in pdf here. ®

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