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SALT LAKE CITY -- A new study from the University of Utah suggests far more of us think we can talk on the phone and drive at the same time than is actually true. But there are "supertaskers" among us -- people who can actually juggle a variety of tasks and do so without compromising their safety.
Psychologist Dr. David Strayer says the research he conducted with fellow psychologist Jason Watson shows 2.5 percent of the population has the extraordinary ability to multitask; Unlike the other 97.5 percent of those surveyed, these supertaskers can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.
Their work is now in press for publication later this year in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
Strayer says even if they don't wear a cape and they can't leap over tall buildings, their ability sets them apart. He describes them as being somewhat like jugglers.
"Their ability is to be able to kind of switch and juggle the different tasks they want to perform without letting any of the balls fall," he explains.
The finding, Strayer says, is important not because it shows people can drive well while on the phone -- the study confirms nearly all of us cannot -- but because it challenges current theories of multitasking. Eventually, it's hoped further research could lead to new understanding of the parts of the brain that give these supertaskers their ability.
Those who are not supertaskers who talked while driving needed 20 percent longer to hit the brakes, and their following distances increased 30 percent because they couldn't keep up with the flow of traffic as well.
The researchers started out by watching people perform simulated highway driving, then added a second demanding activity: not just a cell phone conversation, but a hands-free cell phone conversation that involved doing math problems or memorizing words.
They found those who are not supertaskers who talked while driving needed 20 percent longer to hit the brakes, and their following distances increased 30 percent because they couldn't keep up with the flow of traffic as well.
But supertaskers could talk with no change in braking times or following distance, and their performance on the memorized words actually improved 3 percent.
Strayer says these are not necessarily rocket scientists or brain surgeons, although certainly supertaskers could do those jobs. But he says what is more likely is that these are people who excel at jobs that require them to have their attention divided -- for example, the head chef over a very busy kitchen.
The two psychologists are now studying expert fighter pilots, hoping to prove those who pilot a jet aircraft are also likely to be supertaskers.