Most people can’t concentrate on the road while talking on the phone, as Jack E. Robinson, a Boston businessman and former candidate for governor of
Our Fair State discovered when he became the butt of jokes after crashing his car while participating in a radio call-in show. But one in forty people can do both at once, according to a new study from the University of Utah.
These individuals, which the researchers dubbed “supertaskers,” constitute a mere 2.5 percent of the population. The researchers–University of Utah psychology professors David L. Strayer and Jason M. Watson–hasten to add that the study confirms that most people CAN’T do both at once.
Watson and Strayer assessed the performance of 200 Utah undergraduates single-tasking simulated freeway driving, and again while simultaneously “driving” and holding a cell phone conversation in which they memorized words and did math problems.
When talking while driving, the non-supertaskers took 20 percent longer to hit the brakes, and following distances rose 30 percent as drivers failed to keep pace with the simulated traffic. Memory performance declined 11 percent, and ability to do simple math problems fell by three percent. However, supertaskers displayed no change in their normal braking times, following distances, or math ability, and their memory abilities actually improved three percent.
Interestingly, the supertaskers’ performance on single tasks also was markedly superior to that of the run-of-the-mill H. sapiens.
In neuroimaging studies, the driving-cell phone multitasking appears to overtax the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the executive region of the brain, says Strayer. This shows up as unusually high metabolism in that region.
Watson and Strayer suspect that the supertaskers may be able to farm part of the work of multitasking out to other parts of the brain, based on studies of elderly adults who have shown little cognitive decline which were conducted by Roberto Cabeza of Duke University. These have shown “bilateral activation, both left and right brain trying to solve a problem,” says Strayer. “It’s like trying to lift a weight with both arms versus one arm.”
Watson and Strayer are now studying expert fighter pilots, who they think may have extraordinary multitasking ability.