Photograph by Pete Ryan, National Geographic Stock
Published April 2, 2010
People with superhuman powers walk among us—or at least drive among us, scientists say.
Numerous studies have shown that the vast majority of people can't drive well while distracted, such as when talking on a cell phone. (See "Young Cell Phone Users Drive Like Elderly, Study Says.")
A new study supports those findings, but it also uncovered a rare group of people who perform as well or better when multitasking.
About 1 in 40 people are "supertaskers," the study found. The discovery may open the door to a slew of new research into how the brain handles multiple streams of information.
The existence of supertaskers "does seem to violate traditional cognitive theory," which says that the human brain can actively pay attention to just one task at a time, said study co-author Jason Watson, a University of Utah psychologist.
For the new study, Watson and colleagues tested 200 people in a driving simulator, first without any distractions, then while solving math problems and memorizing words spoken over a cell phone.
Most people got worse at driving and at the given tasks when trying to do both at once. But five of the volunteers had no problems driving while talking, and a couple even did better at the math problems.
Supertaskers Were Predicted
"The fact that there could be supertaskers isn't new to me," said David Meyer, a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who wasn't involved in the new study. (Related: "Beyond the Brain" in National Geographic magazine.)
In 1995 Meyer and colleagues published a paper suggesting that the brain should be able to process information in parallel—the same way a computer can run multiple programs at the same time.
The team wrote at the time that the assertion that gray matter can't ever multitask efficiently seems "implausible."
Meyer's lab also conducted studies in the '90s showing that, under certain conditions, some test subjects achieved equally fast response times when multitasking and single-tasking.
Not Everyone Can Be Super
Study co-author Watson next wants to study supertaskers to figure out how they think and what else they might be good at.
He's planning to study fighter pilots' brains, based on the idea that supertaskers might self-select into jobs that require extraordinary multitasking ability.
His team is also considering studying chefs, orchestra conductors, and even TV producers. (Related: "Making Music Boosts Brain's Language Skills.")
But Watson and Meyer both caution against using any study results as a justification for driving while talking on the phone. After all, the studies were all conducted under simplified lab conditions, Meyer said, which don't encompass the many additional challenges of driving in real life.
"If and when multitasking may be difficult or easy—and by how much—all depends on the tasks that are involved and the strategies that people use to cope with them," Meyer said.
Watson added that people definitely shouldn't "self diagnose" themselves as supertaskers and take any risks behind the wheel.
"Many people believe they are the exception to the rule," he said. "However, the odds are against them."
The supertaskers study will be published later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest News Video
Mazes are a powerful tool for neuroscientists trying to figure out the brain and help us learn to grapple with the unexpected.