In a surprise discovery, researchers have identified a group of people whose cognitive abilities allow them to accomplish much more than the rest of us in any given moment. The secret of their success may be simply ignoring more—and doing and feeling less—than the average person.
The moment the broadcast goes live, Joe Perota suddenly goes from normal to extraordinary. Perota is a director for live multi-camera TV. While you’re watching Saturday Night Live or Monday Night Football, someone like him is standing in the control room before a massive bank of monitors, deciding what you will see.
In the same situation, a normal person would panic and freeze up, but Perota seems to be having a peak experience. He’s grinning broadly, laughing loudly at each punchline. Processing massive amounts of information, forced to make decisions with split-second timing, all on the high-wire of live TV, Perota isn’t stressed out; he’s the picture of bliss.
Perota is almost certainly one of those rare people whom cognitive psychologist David Strayer of The University of Utah calls a “supertasker”: someone who can juggle two demanding tasks without pausing or making mistakes. The existence of supertaskers came as a surprise to Strayer, an attention expert. His experiments have proven that while we think we can handle several tasks at once—driving while fiddling with the radio, say—most of us can’t. We slow down, trip up. The very concept of multitasking is a myth. Our brains don’t do two things at once; instead, we rapidly switch between tasks, putting heavy burdens on attention, memory, and focus. In Strayer’s studies, talking on a cellphone while driving (perhaps the most ubiquitous type of multitasking) leaves people as cognitively impaired as if they’d had two or three drinks.
About five years ago, however, Strayer found an exception to this rule. He was running an experiment in which people were supposed to use a driving simulator while doing two mental tasks: memorizing the order of words that were interspersed with simple math problems. “It’s really hard to do,” Strayer says. Unsurprisingly, most participants tailgated, smashed into simulated obstacles, and couldn’t correctly solve the math problems. (It’s thanks to such research that laws prohibit texting while driving.)
Yet as he crunched the data, Strayer discovered a volunteer who could do all three tasks at the same time—flawlessly. Did the program have a glitch? Did the guy cheat? “Nope,” says Strayer. “This person was phenomenal.” Through other soul-sucking multitasking tests, Strayer has since found that about 2.5 percent of people he studies have exceptional abilities. They don’t get overloaded. In fact, a few actually get better when doing both tasks at once—a paradox that Strayer suspects is related to the reasons why elite athletes or musicians sometimes shine the brightest under the most difficult circumstances.
While people’s capacity for attention, decision making, and information processing ranges widely, there’s something distinctive about such elite minds. They’re outliers. Using brain imaging, Strayer has discovered that their brains are especially efficient. Despite the supertaskers’ outstanding performance, one neural network involved in attention actually has less metabolic activity during the demanding tasks than an ordinary person’s would. Strayer thinks that supertaskers have some way of overcoming the processing bottlenecks that prevent the rest of us from effectively doing more than one thing at a time.
The ability to supertask probably involves a unique blend of attention, memory, and resistance to distractions—Strayer has just begun to probe what the distinctive abilities of the supertasker might be. While his definition of supertasking is specific and data-based (the capacity to handle two attention-demanding tasks at once without paying a cost), we’ve all probably encountered someone in real life who shows every sign of being a supertasker: flourishing under stress and displaying masterful emotional control, processing vast amounts of information quickly, and making essential judgments in a flash.
As diverse as such superpowers may seem, research by University of California, San Francisco neurologist and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley suggests that they could be manifestations of the same underlying ability: cognitive control, which he defines as the ability to interact with the world in a goal-directed way. Stimuli do not simply flood into our brains, he says. We selectively let them in by regulating attention. What Strayer calls a supertasker could from this perspective be called an elite cognitive controller—a person who precisely selects what information gets in and, as Gazzaley has shown, what gets screened out.
Juggling tasks without making mistakes, according to Gazzaley’s research, relies on the ability to weed out distractions—say, the internal daydreams of a mind-wanderer or external disturbances like the chatter of a coworker. (Interruptions, by contrast, present information you need to attend to, such as an email from the boss.) The better you are at ignoring distractors, he’s found, the better your ability to keep track of multiple streams of information, error-free.
(Psychology Today Magazine)