Being a graduate student in a cancer research lab makes me a very busy person. It's not uncommon to have several experiments going at once. Combined with meetings and classes, I'm constantly multitasking. But the more I try to do, the less efficient I seem to become. This realization made me wonder, am I not good at multitasking after all?
An exhibit at The Leonardo – a new science/art museum in Salt Lake City - gave me a way to find out how I compared with the rest of the population. The exhibit is based on a study done by University of Utah researchers Jason Watson and David Strayer. They found that there are rare individuals, 2.5% of those tested, who excel at multitasking. In fact, these "supertaskers" actually perform better when doing two attention-demanding tasks at the same time.
I had never been to the Leonardo, and so after being pleasantly distracted by a few other exhibits, arrived at the Gene Lab on the top floor where the supertasking exhibit is being held. My ability to perform multiple tasks was tested as I simultaneously answered simple math questions on a computer while remembering letters. Individually, the tasks were very easy, but when combined, my brain felt like it was being stretched in two directions.
The second part of the test involved submitting a saliva sample so that my genetic profile could be compared to my multitasking test results. The DNA collected in this study will be analyzed to determine if supertaskers have a piece of DNA, or variation within a gene, that is different from non-supertaskers. The hope is to identify what causes supertaskers to be good at multitasking. While I spit into a cup for later DNA extraction, a museum worker, Caitlin, was kind enough to answer my questions about the study. I learned that over 2300 people had already participated, with an age range from 14-92 years old.
The idea of real science being done in collaboration with a museum is great. By working with the museum, this study has been able to collect samples from a lot of people, which gives the researchers more statistical power to find genes that are associated with supertasking. As for the general public, they benefit by being introduced to interesting science. For the participants, the most interesting aspect is that we get to learn something about ourselves.
So where did I fall in the range of multitasking? Just about average. That just goes to show, you don't have to be a supertasker to be a scientist.
The Leonardo exhibit will be available to the public through the rest of 2012.
NOTE: Soon, you won't have to come to Salt Lake City to take the supertasker test. Watson, Strayer, and their colleagues in Australia, Andrew Heathcoat and Ami Eidels, are developing a web-based test for the public. In addition, Watson and Strayer plan to publish the data collected from The Leonardo exhibit as part of a large-scale analysis of working memory and attentional capacity.