Meet the Super Taskers

Image: Businessman calculating figures and having a vision
Geof Kern

The moment the broadcast goes live, Joe Perota suddenly goes from normal to extraordinary. Perota is a director for live multi-camera TV. While you're watching Saturday Night Live or Monday Night Football, someone like him is standing in the control room before a massive bank of monitors, deciding what you will see.

In the same situation, a normal person would panic and freeze up, but Perota seems to be having a peak experience. He's grinning broadly, laughing loudly at each punchline. Processing massive amounts of information, forced to make decisions with split-second timing, all on the high-wire of live TV, Perota isn't stressed out; he's the picture of bliss.

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Perota is almost certainly one of those rare people whom cognitive psychologist David Strayer of The University of Utah calls a "supertasker": someone who can juggle two demanding tasks without pausing or making mistakes. The existence of supertaskers came as a surprise to Strayer, an attention expert. His experiments have proven that while we think we can handle several tasks at once—driving while fiddling with the radio, say—most of us can't. We slow down, trip up. The very concept of multitasking is a myth. Our brains don't do two things at once; instead, we rapidly switch between tasks, putting heavy burdens on attention, memory, and focus. In Strayer's studies, talking on a cellphone while driving (perhaps the most ubiquitous type of multitasking) leaves people as cognitively impaired as if they'd had two or three drinks.

About five years ago, however, Strayer found an exception to this rule. He was running an experiment in which people were supposed to use a driving simulator while doing two mental tasks: memorizing the order of words that were interspersed with simple math problems. "It's really hard to do," Strayer says. Unsurprisingly, most participants tailgated, smashed into simulated obstacles, and couldn't correctly solve the math problems. (It's thanks to such research that laws prohibit texting while driving.)

Yet as he crunched the data, Strayer discovered a volunteer who could do all three tasks at the same time—flawlessly. Did the program have a glitch? Did the guy cheat? "Nope," says Strayer. "This person was phenomenal." Through other soul-sucking multitasking tests, Strayer has since found that about 2.5 percent of people he studies have exceptional abilities. They don't get overloaded. In fact, a few actually get better when doing both tasks at once—a paradox that Strayer suspects is related to the reasons why elite athletes or musicians sometimes shine the brightest under the most difficult circumstances.

While people's capacity for attention, decision making, and information processing ranges widely, there's something distinctive about such elite minds. They're outliers. Using brain imaging, Strayer has discovered that their brains are especially efficient. Despite the supertaskers' outstanding performance, one neural network involved in attention actually has less metabolic activity during the demanding tasks than an ordinary person's would. Strayer thinks that supertaskers have some way of overcoming the processing bottlenecks that prevent the rest of us from effectively doing more than one thing at a time.

The ability to supertask probably involves a unique blend of attention, memory, and resistance to distractions—Strayer has just begun to probe what the distinctive abilities of the supertasker might be. While his definition of supertasking is specific and data-based (the capacity to handle two attention-demanding tasks at once without paying a cost), we've all probably encountered someone in real life who shows every sign of being a supertasker: flourishing under stress and displaying masterful emotional control, processing vast amounts of information quickly, and making essential judgments in a flash.

As diverse as such superpowers may seem, research by University of California, San Francisco neurologist and neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley suggests that they could be manifestations of the same underlying ability: cognitive control, which he defines as the ability to interact with the world in a goal-directed way. Stimuli do not simply flood into our brains, he says. We selectively let them in by regulating attention. What Strayer calls a supertasker could from this perspective be called an elite cognitive controller—a person who precisely selects what information gets in and, as Gazzaley has shown, what gets screened out.

Juggling tasks without making mistakes, according to Gazzaley's research, relies on the ability to weed out distractions—say, the internal daydreams of a mind-wanderer or external disturbances like the chatter of a coworker. (Interruptions, by contrast, present information you need to attend to, such as an email from the boss.) The better you are at ignoring distractors, he's found, the better your ability to keep track of multiple streams of information, error-free.

Image: Businessman juggling messages, flowers and work on a typewriter

Geof Kern
In his lab, younger and older people did a simple task in which they were told to remember two faces while viewing pictures of scenery that they were instructed to ignore. They were then shown another face that might or might not match one of the originals. Younger people were better at determining whether the faces matched; brain imaging suggests that's because they're better at ignoring. During the scenery shots, the visual regions of their brains shut down. It was as if they hadn't even seen the photos. Older people let the pictures in—and that extra data interfered with their processing, Gazzaley proposes.

His findings put a new spin on memory lapses, suggesting they may often be due not to recall errors, but a failure to tune out distractions. In another study, Gazzaley had people look at images, then try to recall the details while viewing another scene. The visual stimulus hobbled performance. Participants were more accurate if they kept their eyes closed or looked only at a gray screen. Background noise, like what you'd hear at a restaurant, also hurt performance. The upshot: Even ordinary distractions can clog memory. "The study shows the exquisite sensitivity of our brains to even normal interference around us," Gazzaley says.

For most of us, attempting to multi-task only ramps up the informational commotion in our minds, creating an interference crisis. As we switch from task to task, engaging and disengaging attention, information from one task gums up the processing of another. The result: A loss of cognitive control and the kind of dumb mistakes that Strayer documents.

Yet supertaskers prove that it's possible to bypass this vulnerability of the mind. While Strayer says he wouldn't be surprised if a supertasker's skills turn out to have a genetic basis, recent work suggests that at least a few of their abilities (resistance to distraction, the ability to ignore) can be learned. By practicing skills that come naturally to supertaskers, most people can become more focused, less distractible, and less prone to oversights and errors.

Some of the most exciting research on this front comes from Gazzaley's lab. Recently, he had older adults up to age 80 play a driving-based video game in which they were asked to identify some road signs and ignore others. After repeated sessions, their attention improved to the point that they could outscore 20-year-olds who hadn't had practice. The older adults improved on other tests of memory and attention too, suggesting that game practice globally enhanced some underlying factor in cognitive control.

Broader evidence that focus and attention are malleable and can be strengthened comes from research on action video game players that was conducted by Daphne Bavelier, a brain and cognitive scientist with appointments at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Rochester. Through constant play, gamers inadvertently train themselves to ignore distractions and handle multiple streams of information efficiently. These findings derive from her studies of first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, in which a player is barraged with noises and visuals (bad guys leaping out, bullets flying, vehicles speeding by) while monitoring inset boxes with maps and instructions, following text cues, and making split-second decisions about whom to shoot and where to run.

By playing these games, Bavelier has found, people get better at managing multiple data streams, becoming masters of many forms of top-down attentional control—the ability to zero in on key objects in an information-rich environment. They're good at spatial attention (for example, the ability to locate keys on a cluttered desk) and at allocating attention over time (a skill crucial for mind-numbing tasks like reviewing a security video for the moment a crook appears). They also seem to develop a wider mental pipeline than the rest of us, who can only track about four objects at once—for example, four kids at a crowded playground. Cognitive scientists long thought this limit was ingrained, due to something fundamental about the way the mind is built. But Bavelier has found that habitual action video gamers can track six objects.

Image: Woman fencing and playing ping pong in a cocktail dress

Geof Kern
Her experiments further indicate that gamers aren't born this way; they've reshaped their brains—and so can other people. In her studies, she recruits nongamers, assigning them to play fast-paced action games or control games involving strategy or social play. Only by playing the former do participants get better at task switching and multitasking. Their visual acuity also improves.

These skills are not typically thought of as being related, but Bavelier suspects that the souped-up abilities stem from the same source: Through enhanced attentional control, gamers actually expand their mental bandwidth and so they  are able to extract more and richer data from their environment. As a result, their minds have more and richer data to work with. “You’re allowing the system to get more relevant information from the outside world,” she suggests. “That may feed back into being able to perform better.” 

The degree to which game-learned abilities translate to everyday life remains controversial and is being investigated by other groups studying everything from laproscopic surgery to tank driving. So far, one of the most convincing examples of the impact of skills honed through gaming comes from real life. As part of the Nissan GT Academy challenge, the top 10 players of the car-racing game Gran Turismo are given the chance to race real automobiles in competition. They’re very good—too good, in fact. A graduate racing a real car in the British GT in 2012 was so fast that he could keep up with the professionals in what was supposed to be an amateur event. In 2013, GT Academy graduates were banned from such races in the UK. Instead, they have to compete against the pros.

But that doesn't mean that obsessive gaming is the best path to becoming a supertasker. In fact, addictive play is typically counterproductive. According to Bavelier, excellent results come from a fairly modest routine of about half an hour to an hour each day, five days a week, for 10 to 12 weeks.

Gazzaley and Bavelier are also exploring ways to improve attention and memory that may be more powerful than gaming. Gazzaley is testing a meditation-inspired activity that may help people train themselves to minimize internal distractions, while Bavelier is interested in another type of cognitive control that likely plays into supertasking: emotional regulation, or the ability to minimize interference from anxiety and other strong, distracting emotions.

Meanwhile, a quick step toward becoming a supertasker is to cut down on chronic multitasking, which may start a feedback loop that improves cognitive control. Counterintuitively, it turns out that those who multitask the most are the least able to handle it. A study from Stanford University found that in comparison with those who rarely multitask, heavy multitaskers have poorer memory, more difficulty switching tasks, and are worse at filtering out irrelevant information. It's the dark side of brain plasticity: Just as some people hone their attention through video game play, others may unintentionally train themselves to be easily distracted by constantly shifting their attention.

To reduce mental interference in his own life—in a sense, reproducing the mental gifts of the supertasker in the physical environment—Gazzaley is careful to block off as many sources of distraction and interruption as he can when he needs to get demanding, important work done on a deadline. He shuts his office door, turns off his phone, and closes his email program. Practicing single-tasking, over time, may be the key to developing supertasker-like skills—and Gazzaley suggests that we all do more of it, regularly challenging ourselves to exert more cognitive control.

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Geof Kern
Supertasking Skill: Mastering Memory

Joe Perota, live multicamera TV director

As the live taping of the comedy talk show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell begins, Perota is watching five screens reflecting different camera angles. He's got his eye on another two displaying graphics, two dedicated to playbacks, three that display effects, plus the TelePrompTer monitor. He's watching the monitor that shows what's on air and the one previewing what will come up next. He's monitoring the host, W. Kamau Bell, as he moves across the stage, in case he suddenly lurches off-camera or makes a hilarious face that must be captured in a close-up. Meanwhile, he also listens to the separate sound sources: microphones on the talent and audience, sound effects, musical "beds" or taped backgrounds, and performers.

"When you watch taped TV, all the elements—what the talent does, the camera angles, the graphics—are edited later," he says. "For live TV, the computer that edits is my brain."

Being able to absorb so much information at the same time is unusual. But Perota's stealth supertasking power is his memory, particularly his working memory. The way he's able to make creative on-the-fly decisions during a live show is by having all the minutiae (the graphics, script, and performances) at his mental "fingertips" at all times. An hour before the show begins, he memorizes the entire script—jokes included. It takes him about 15 minutes. "I just look at it, and the information becomes part of me," he says.

Studies by UCSF researcher Adam Gazzaley indicate that such elite memory performance likely arises from the same mental apparatus behind other master abilities of the supertasker: the capacity to resist distractions and screen out interference. The reason Perota is able to commit information to memory so quickly and can recall details so easily could be that his brain does an excellent job of keeping out irrelevant facts to begin with, while also ruthlessly excluding interference when he's in the process of remembering.

In Gazzaley's studies, volunteers remembered best when he eliminated as much sensory interference as possible—when they viewed a blank screen in silence. What makes Perota exceptional: He achieves an extraordinary level of recall while being blasted with sights and sounds. (A colleague calls him "Superbrain.") "Not everybody can do this," he admits. "You have to have a good memory. If you're forgetful, you're doomed. If you have to think about something—forget it."

Supertasking Skill: Decisive Delegating

Keith Alvey, Red Cross relief operation director

While the first waves of Hurricane Sandy swirled ashore, Keith Alvey started driving directly toward the storm. Alvey had been with the Red Cross for 24 years, and was the regional chapter CEO for Kentucky. He'd spent time in New York City after September 11 and in Baton Rouge after Katrina. He knew just what to do.

When he got to the command center north of Manhattan after his all-night drive, he immediately started wrapping his brain around all the information. The sheer number of crises needing instant attention should have been overwhelming: Seven subway tunnels were flooded. A broken crane was dangling partway off the 90th floor of a skyscraper in midtown. Seniors were trapped in high-rises in the low-lying Rockaways. Fires were roaring through Breezy Point in Queens.

Alvey's reaction? "Immediate acceptance. There's a whole lot of stuff going on that I have no control over. There are 100-plus decisions to make, and 75 percent of those I can do nothing about." Through experience, he knew that the most effective way for him to operate was to pinpoint those problems that he could solve and then tune out the rest.

Essentially, he was relying on a well-honed ability to ignore distraction—in other words, exert cognitive control. Without pumps, fire trucks, or helicopters, there wasn't much he could do about the floods, flames, or broken crane—but Alvey did have a well-trained army of volunteers who could feed and clothe people who'd been flooded out of their homes. So that priority rose to the top of his list.

In a crisis, Alvey keeps himself focused by concentrating on the end result: helping desperate people through a time of turmoil. To that end, he delegates everything he can. Minimizing the interference in his mind allows him to manage a seemingly superhuman amount of information."If it's a problem that someone with a higher level of expertise than I have can address, I say, 'Solve it, and let me know what happens.'"

Another way he reduces distractions: Alvey avoids second-guessing himself. "There's no value in saying, 'I should've decided differently.' I decided the way I should have, based on the information I had," he explains. Strayer believes this is likely a common practice among elite performers: "They say, if you make a mistake, deal with it—and then just purge it from your thinking."

Supertasking Skill: Maintaining Emotional Equilibrium

Deena Brecher, clinical nurse specialist/outreach coordinator for a hospital emergency department

Arriving in a big-city ER on a winter night, a nurse has a reasonable chance of walking into mayhem: patients lining the hallways; families screaming at the staff; kids wailing in pain and fear. In the midst of such chaos, Deena Brecher's job is to get to work immediately, making what can be literally life-or-death decisions—without losing her cool.

On occasions when she works as a triage nurse, she's the first person people meet upon entering the ER. In under a minute, she'll size you up: Are you dying? At real risk of dying? Or do you need lower-level help (a splint)? She does it quickly thanks to her 16 years of experience—but also because she has a supertasker skill, the ability to stay focused in an emotionally overwhelming situation.

People who choose ER work are a breed apart: "The more chaotic it gets, the more focused we become," she says. In the back of the ER, where admitted patients are treated, she might be caring for a 4-year-old with appendicitis (ordering lab tests, getting a urine sample, arranging an ultrasound) and a 2-week-old with a fever—and a potentially life-threatening systemic infection. What to do first? "It's a question of who is sickest, and what's the most important thing to do," she says. Meanwhile, Brecher must funnel information to doctors, anticipate what trainees might forget, do minor procedures like blood draws, and act as her patients' waitress.

It's not just the amount of information Brecher processes that qualifies her as a supertasker, it's the emotional tightrope she successfully walks while doing so. She must maintain enough empathy to be a good nurse and stay in touch with her instincts, while avoiding being steamrolled by tragedies—or taking out stress on others. "If your cognitive resources are overwhelmed with feelings, you're less efficient," says psychologist Daphne Bavelier, who studies how emotional regulation relates to other superfocusing skills.

To help maintain balance, Brecher relies on humor, moral support from fellow ER workers, and her professional association (she is the president of the Emergency Nurses Association.) "Some days, you just want to put your head under a pillow—but you have five more hours in your shift," she says. "So you just have to keep moving forward."

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