Almost everyone is terrible at multitasking. The more people try and do, the worse they perform on every task.
But there is a small fraction of the population that might be true multitaskers, or “supertaskers,” a term coined by David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who studies attention.
Not only do these people excel at cognitive tasks in the first place, their performance doesn’t suffer in the least when they do different things simultaneously — it sometimes gets better.
For most of us, “our brain can’t handle the overload,” Strayer told Maria Konnikova of the New Yorker, in a recent story about supertaskers. Strayer has spent his career telling people that they are wrong when they claim they can drive and talk on the phone safely at the same time.
So when he actually encountered someone in a research lab who was simultaneously able to drive, do complex maths, and respond to cell phone prompts, his mind was blown.
When his team designed a test that had subjects try not to crash in a driving simulation while performing memory tasks and analysing maths problems, most failed abysmally. But about 2% passed — they matched or even exceeded the way they performed on each individual test beforehand.
Along with psychologists from the University of Newcastle in Australia, Strayer and his team created an online version of the test where you’re a bouncer at a club instead of a distracted driver.
And if you think you’ll be good at it, brace yourself: According to Strayer’s research, the people who think they are the best multitaskers are usually among the worst.