Human Multitasking

I came across a forthcoming article, Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability, which caught my attention even though it had nothing to do with hyperbaric oxygen or the neurologic conditions we treat at Atlanta Hyperbaric. Other studies have shown that cell phone usage while driving increases accident rates, braking time, object detection etc., i.e., generally increases driver error.    But, many people believe that they can use a cell phone while driving and it doesn’t impair them at all.  These authors looked at 200 college undergraduates to determine just how many of them really could drive unimpaired while talking on a cell phone.

The students took the operation span (OSPAN) test of executive attention, which requires memorizing items and recalling them in the correct order while concurrently performing distracting math problems.  They also performed a driving test in a simulator.  The simulation consisted of freeway driving in traffic while being monitored for braking time and distance from vehicles slowing in front of them.

Overall, participants did significantly worse when doing the two tests at the same time for brake reaction time, following distance, memory performance, and math performance.  But, three men and two women (2.5%) scored in the top 25% on the memory and driving tests and stayed in the top quartile on all measures when talking and driving at the same time. Their memory scores actually rose 3% while multitasking.  The other students showed a 20% increase in braking time, 30% poorer ability to keep pace with traffic, 11% worse memory performance, and 3% lower math scores.

The researchers suggested that these rare “supertaskers” have a genetic or biological advantage rather than simply being more experienced at driving while on the cell phone.  They believe supertaskers could provide information on the nature of cognition in multitasking. Nevertheless,  most of us exhibit a significant decrease in ability when we try to perform two tasks at the same time.

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