A University of Utah study has discovered that a select few people thrive on multitasking—despite traditional cognitive theory that says our brains can handle only one job at a time. What does it take to be a "supertasker" and can the rest of us condition our brains to work like "a computer [running] multiple programs"?
What is a 'supertasker'?
The researchers coined this term for the 1 in 40 capable souls (or 2.5 percent of the total sample of 200) whose performance actually increased when they tried to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.
What tasks were thrown at them?
All participants were asked to handle a driving simulation while solving math problems and memorizing words. Most people were flummoxed relatively quickly.
How do supertaskers contradict current theories about brain function?
Scientists have long thought that the brain "has a fixed budget of resources," says Alice Park in Time magazine. "If demanding tasks pile up on each other, then each task is allotted a smaller and smaller amount of resources, which translates into a decrease in performance." This study suggests that, for some of us, this isn't the case.
What accounts for supertaskers' rare skill?
Researchers suggest a combination of "biological, genetic, and perhaps behavioral" factors is at play. In other words, they're not sure.
Are their brains physically different?
It's possible that supertaskers have more developed frontal cortexes, the brain's "master switching station" that determines where we focus our attention. However, since brain matter is malleable, it's also possible that supertasking abilities stem from experience, not genetics.
Are some people more likely to be supertaskers?
Yes, say the university's researchers, who hope to devote further study to people in professions that oblige them to be extraordinarily efficient multitaskers: fighter pilots, chefs, orchestra conductors, television producers, for example.
Can we train our brains to become more efficient?
Studies show that new technologies might be making newer generations "naturally more adept at multitasking." (An iPhone, for example, allows children to text and engage with the real world simultaneously.) Still, the study's authors caution against "practicing" multitasking in high-stress situations, while driving for instance. "Two-and-a-half percent is an exceptionally small number," comments Switched blogger Terrence O'Brien. "Odds are, you're not part of that club."