Multitasking is the subject of a litany of psychological papers and reviews, the word is bandied around in web-authored articles and comment sections as people discuss their favorite techniques or denounce the ability as fictional. As the world we live in becomes more and more connected through technology, and as the chaos of everyday life increases proportionally, multitasking is often made out to be at the core of our work-minded culture. A simple google search for “multitasking” will give anybody enough reading material to last them a lifetime and then some.
Many of the information to be found on the subject of multitasking is about the inefficacy of it, the impossibility of focusing on two or more tasks at once, and indeed many of the most prominent researchers agree that, on the whole, humans are not the greatest at splitting attention. Among those prominent researchers are Jason Watson and David Strayer at the University of Utah. Who, in 2010, released a paper in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review entitled Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. In it they make the claim that only 2.5% of the individuals they tested for multitasking ability were able to perform the tasks given to them at the same time with no decrease in performance. Of these so called “supertaskers” some were even shown to perform better while multitasking than while performing their assigned tasks alone.
The canonical explanation for the decrease in performance while multitasking is much like explaining why a computer slows down when you use too much of its resources, a computer can do one thing at a time really quickly and really well, or it can perform a variety of tasks all at once, at the cost of speed and performance. The brain is very similar to a computer in this regard. The 2.5% of test subjects who break this canonical “rule”, the supertaskers, are thought by the researchers to have brains capable of doing something the rest of us can only pretend at doing, which is why they’re searching for more to study.
Earlier in 2010 the search for multitaskers culminated in a peculiar sort of teamwork between art and science in which visitors to The Leonardo, an art-science museum located in Utah, were tested for their ability to multitask in a quick test akin to the tests used in the original Supertaskers paper. In addition to the multitasking tests, saliva samples were taken, so that DNA-level similarities could be traced to increased supertasking abilities. Thousands of people were screened, and the researchers gained a wealth of data. Strayer and Watson are currently developing a web-based test for multitasking ability. Further study of supertasking is hoped to reveal the mechanism by which these individuals are able to focus more of their brain resources on multiple tasks at once. Perhaps one day everybody will be a supertasker, but as for now, 97.5% of people are going to have to stick to monotasking.