Multitasking and the brain

This dog says, "don't text and drive." (PublicDomainPictures.net)
This dog says, “don’t text and drive.” (PublicDomainPictures.net)

It figures that an article I wrote about multitasking would be published the same week I finally broke down and bought a smartphone! Check out The Multitasking Mind to learn more about the neuroscience of multitasking.

Training the brain

While I was interviewing neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley for my BrainFacts piece, he told me about a study his lab had completed that used a video game to train older adults to improve their working memory and multitasking abilities. The study hadn’t been accepted for publication when I conducted the interview so I wasn’t able to discuss it in my piece, but it’s since been published in Nature. It’s pretty interesting, and there was a nice write-up about it in the New York Times.

“Supertaskers”

I also learned about “supertaskers” while researching my article, but wasn’t able to discuss them due to space constraints. While most of us will hit our multitasking peak around 23, some people—about 2.5 percent of the population—are born lucky. These people are sometimes called “supertaskers” because their performance does not decrease when multitasking. For example, the addition of a cell phone conversation to a driving simulation led to longer following distances and delayed braking time for most people.  The driving performance of supertaskers, however, stayed exactly the same. Their ability to perform memory and math tests during the cell phone conversation also stayed the same. In fact, some supertaskers actually did better when doing both tasks at once.

Are you a supertasker? Probably not. In fact, you may be even less likely to be a supertasker if you think you are one. A recent study showed that, in general, people who are the best at multitasking do not do it very often and do not think they are good at it. The people who thought they were skilled multitaskers and who often worked on multiple tasks simultaneously (especially in terms of media) were not actually good multitaskers.  So next time you feel like doing a math problem while talking on the phone and driving, please don’t.

References

Jacobsen W, Forste R. The wired generation: academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 14(5), 275-280 (2011).

Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner A. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106(37), 15583-15587 (2009).

Sanbonmatsu D, Strayer D, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson J. Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLOS One. 8(1),  e54402 (2013).

Watson J, Strayer D. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 17(4), 479-485 (2010).

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