Saturday, 12 October 2013

Day 6 of Digest Super Week: Meet the Supertaskers

We study SuperTaskers

Dr Jason Watson
My collaborator Dr. David Strayer and I began looking for individual differences in multitasking ability in 2006-2007. We were looking for any attentional control variables that might predict who shows more or less dual-task cost associated with a real-world form of multitasking: use of a mobile phone while driving. In our first 30 subjects tested in this experiment, we were surprised to find one subject who did not show the expected pattern of dual-task costs (i.e. they drove just the same whether using a phone at the same time or not, and vice versa). After ruling out alternative explanations for this subject’s results (e.g., miscoding, sandbagging), we wondered if we might find more individuals who performed this way, and ultimately identified four more out of the original set of 200 subjects that we had tested.

We thought other cognitive scientists might be interested in these 2.5 per cent of individuals (5 out of 200) who violated cognitive theory with regard to limited-capacity attention, began referring to them as the “Supertaskers,” and wrote a paper about them that is now published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. We’ve been searching for and studying Supertaskers ever since, having identified over a dozen in the context of our research, while also learning more about what cognitive factor(s) may contribute to their extraordinary multitasking ability.

Digest: How might their multitasking skills affect their everyday lives?

Dr David Strayer
As we noted in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind we suspect certain occupations may have a higher percentage of Supertaskers. For example, high-end chefs, ER doctors, fighter pilots, air traffic controllers, or elite NFL quarterbacks may be particularly adept at managing multiple task goals and streams of information, and hence, be more likely to be Supertaskers. Regardless, all else being equal, we would expect the Supertaskers in our midst to rise to the top of their respective professions, particularly when the cognitive demands of their occupation require them to juggle multiple task goals at the same time.

Digest: Could we train ourselves to reach their level of multitasking ability?

Though our Supertaskers were identified based on their behavioral performance in cognitive tasks with which they had little if any prior training, it is a question for future research as to whether it might be possible to train others to reach their level of superior multitasking ability. Our current thinking is that Supertaskers’ level of multitasking ability is indeed innate. However, as we conduct more inter-disciplinary research with Supertaskers, and hopefully gain a greater understanding of what factor(s) might distinguish Supertaskers from the rest of us, it may be possible to use Supertaskers’ overall profile of performance as a guide for designing training regimes to help others be more effective at multitasking.

Digest: What studies of Supertaskers are you planning next?

Most recently, our primary research focus has been to identify what might be unique about Supertaskers: whether in terms of genetics, underlying brain activity/structure, behaviour, or a host of other variables. Our initial brain imaging results have been especially promising, revealing that Supertaskers may be more effective in recruiting key aspects of prefrontal cortex. That is, relative to matched control subjects, the Supertaskers are more efficient, achieving greater levels of behavioural performance in dual-task paradigms with less associated neural activity. Supertaskers keep their brains “cool” under demanding cognitive loads, perhaps making them less susceptible to the behavioural interference that often accompanies multitasking. Notably, such neural efficiency seems to also be associated with expertise in different domains. Our future neuroimaging research is examining both activation of the resting state or default mode network and the integrity of white matter pathways in the brains of Supertaskers, as well as the notion that certain occupations, such as fighter pilots and air traffic controllers, may show similar multitasking ability and patterns of neural efficiency.

Drs Jason Watson and David Strayer are at the Department of Psychology & The Brain Institute, University of Utah

Tomorrow, on the final day of Digest Super Week, we meet a person with hyperthymesia, the ability to remember every day of their life in detail. 


Vattenläckage said...

It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained ... Thanks for this great post!

Mango said...

Seems very odd choice of tasks. Is it not more likely that they found people who constantly drive and talk on the cell phone and had developed significant expertise in doing so through extensive practice? Also why two such dissimilar tasks? Surely you would test two very similar tasks that competed for exactly the same resources?

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