When people try to do multiple things at the same time, their ability to do these things suffers. It's well-established that motorists on cellphones drive as badly as drunk people, for example. University of Utah researcher David Strayer thought that this inability to multi-task well was a universal law, until one special person showed up in his lab. Given the pseudonym Cassie, this woman didn't get worse when asked to do multiple tasks. In fact, she even seemed to get better.
As chronicled in the New Yorker, Cassie turns out to be amongst the two percent of people who can multitask very well--a type of person Strayer refers to as "supertaskers." Unlike most people, these select few can do just as well when asked to complete several challenging undertakings, and are true outliers. Strayer and colleagues are now trying to find out what's special about these people's brains. The tale is an interesting one, so head over The New Yorker to read it.
Here's my favorite part, though--when people hear this, they often assume that they are supertaskers:
When people hear that supertaskers exist—even though they know they’re rare—they seem to take it as proof that they, naturally, are an exception. “You’re not,” Strayer told me bluntly. “The ninety-eight per cent of us, we deceive ourselves. And we tend to overrate our ability to multitask.” In fact, when he [and his colleague] asked more than three hundred students to rate their ability to multitask and then compared those ratings to the students’ actual multitasking performances, they found a strong relationship: an inverse one. The better someone thought she was, the more likely it was that her performance was well below par.
I'm well aware of my probably average multitasking abilities; so I will harbor the secret hope that this awareness makes it more likely I'm one of those special few.