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Lots of attention being paid recently to the issue of multitasking, given the plethora of things to command attention: cell phones, email, computers, traffic, conversation, advertising, stop signs, pedestrians, rain, glaring sunlight, the list goes on and on.

Computers deal with multitasking by rapid switching, so rapid that it appears to the user as though the machine is doing many things at once: it's not. It's just that technology has advanced to the point where computers can manage parallel processes that seem simultaneous, because they are faster than our sensory input can perceive.

Good enough. But how about us? Can we humans truly multitask, or are we also limited to rapid switching between tasks that can happen so fast that we appear to be doing several things at once?

Until recently, the answer has been that performance of every task drops off when more than one (definitely when more than two) activities are in process--for people. But wait..there has been found a very small percentage of participants (2.5%) able to do other things successfully while driving.

Researchers call them supertaskers, and their brains seem to function differently from those of the rest of us. They truly can juggle simultaneous tasks without experiencing a drop in attention or focus, maintaining a consistent level of performance on any task. In fact, some of these supertaskers performed better while multitasking than they did while completing the tasks one at a time.

It's possible, one study maintains, that supertaskers are tapping into several other mental mechanisms to maintain performance. For instance, they may be able to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously simply by better allocating their attention; they may be able to triage information as it comes in, disregarding irrelevant and distracting information and focusing only on the inputs that are critical to performing a given task.

It would be interesting to find out whether supertasking can be trained or learned, since young children, accustomed to multiple sensory inputs, seem to be better at multitasking, and to see if the average person can enhance his or her multitasking ability simply through practice.

It would also be interesting to see whether person-based distractions (phone calls) were harder to juggle than impersonal ones (advertising).

For now, the majority of us (97.5%) had better stick to paying attention to the road or to handling other important tasks with a focused mind. I, for one, am definitely not a supertasker!

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