I was delighted this morning that my Facebook friend Todd posted an article reporting on a study that showed that, while most people have impaired driving while talking on their cell phones, some do it extraordinarily well. Finally. The "neural diversity" movement has been extremely useful for helping us understand the range of cognitive skills that are crudely classified as "disabilities" but I've been frustrated that the same more complex understanding of cognition hasn't extended to what we crudely classify as "normal" (or "neural typical," as the diversity movement would say). In other words, the whole binary view of cognition doesn't work at any end of the spectrum because, well, there is no spectrum. Instead, there are range of complex talents that everyone possesses in some measure. Think about the implications of that rainbow spectrum for learning, if we can acknowledge that all our learning practices are habits, some performed better than others.
Basically, driving while talking on a cellphone is no more likely of success or failure, cognitively speaking, than playing a violin (which is basically rubbing your head and patting your stomach to music). Some people do it incredibly well. Others never get the hang of it. If we could recognize those diversities, we would be far more convincing when we told our kid, for example, what he could or could not do behind the wheel before paying attention to what he can do behind the wheel.
The whole concept of multitasking is simplistic. We are all multitasking at something all the time. Right now, I'm typing, but it's a stunning spring day and I'm totally aware of the beauty outside my window. I'm also paying attention to the odd buzzing in my ears--and wish I could shut that out. My mind is wandering, trying to decide if I want to work on Chapter Four or Chapter Three today, and, while I type, I am stretching out my left foot that's still stiff from yesterday. I drink some coffee, I return to my blog, I open the second window blind, I return to my blog, I stretch my foot, and on and on. My mind is doing many things even while it is doing a cognitively-challenging task such as typing while writing. Attention is not nearly as focused as we, in the West, like to think it is. (Buddhists are much better at understanding that attention is constantly divided and learning insight and focus are a life's work not a given.)
I predict that our ideas of disability, task, and multitasking--all perfected over the last one hundred years as part of the process of naturalizing the industrial workplace--will all change in the next two decades. This article is among those showing that cognitive psychology, which has largely supported the binaries of work and leisure, attention and distraction, is starting to pay more attention to the periphery. Finally. Of course, this article now makes yet another new category of the "supertasker." That's not right either. The same person who is an ace at talking on the cellphone while driving might well have terrible peripheral vision. If that's not the case, if she can talk on the phone, drive, follow the directions, spot the cat about to cross into the street, and talk to the person in the passenger seat all at the same time, then, well, American Airlines has a job for her.
Here's the url for the supertasker article: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/04/supertasker/