A new study from University of Utah psychologists found a small group of people with an extraordinary ability to multitask: Unlike 97.5 percent of those studied, they can safely drive while chatting on a cell phone.

University of Utah press release, March 29, 2010

If it sounds too good to be true, says U-M psychology professor David Meyer, that’s because it is. Meyer is an international authority on multitasking–back in the 1990s, experiments in his East Hall lab revealed that the human brain can sometimes handle more than one simple task at a time. But just because we can successfully multitask on some occasions, Meyer says, doesn’t mean we always should–especially if we’re behind the wheel of a car.

Meyer calls the Utah press release “highly irresponsible.” In the study, a group of undergraduate students were given math problems and word memorization tasks over the phone while operating a simulator that mimicked freeway driving. Under those conditions, the researchers found, 97.5 percent of the participants were consistently impaired in either their thinking or their driving–but 2.5 percent were not.

Meyer, however, points out that the challenges presented by real-world phone conversations and driving tasks can be much more complex and absorbing than those the scientists considered. Nor, he adds, is there any reason to think that Utah college students accurately reflect the performance of all U.S. drivers.

In an email, Meyer warned the scientists: “You and your publicists are encouraging the misguided view that, at present, alleged ‘supertaskers’ may cell phone and drive under all conditions with impunity.” The qualifications buried in the press release, Meyer predicted, “will be totally ignored by a multitude of folks who would like to believe otherwise.”

Within days, Meyer was proven right. First came an article in Wired headlined, “Think You’re Good at Driving While on Your Cellphone? You May Be Right.” A few days later Time magazine exaggerated the results even further. “Maybe you even consider yourself one of the few supertaskers who, unlike the rest of us, are so mentally agile that they can safely talk or text–or pen a novel–while driving,” Time wrote–even though texting played no part in the Utah study.

“See what happens,” Meyer asks, “when the media gets hold of a misleading story?”

Meyer is an expert on how the media cover multitasking because he’s a popular source himself. When the phone in his cluttered fourth-floor office of East Hall rings, it may be CNN or NPR–or even the New York Times.

In fact, if you measure fame by the number of quotes attributed to him online, on the air, and in print, Meyer arguably is one of the U-M’s most famous living professors. As a newly named member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is also one of the most prestigious. And certainly Meyer is the only Michigan prof ever to give a PowerPoint presentation to the Dalai Lama.

Yet the man New York magazine called “the world’s foremost expert on multitasking and distraction” is not well known in Ann Arbor. In fact, when AnnArbor.com reported recently on the City Council’s deliberations about banning cell phone use while driving, it quoted another U-M professor as an expert on the subject.

Meyer didn’t mind that–he didn’t seek out the spotlight that’s now trained on him. It fell on him serendipitously after his life was shattered by the kind of tragedy he has been warning the world about ever since.

“I lucked out.”

It’s a phrase Meyer uses repeatedly when recounting his career. Though he acknowledges brains and hard work have played their parts, he recognizes that he’s often been in the right place at the right time.

At sixty-seven, Meyer still has an athlete’s body–6 foot 5, long legs and arms. He plays racquetball regularly with a congenital competitiveness. During interviews, he drapes his tall frame over a small chair almost wedged between a computer stand and his desk. The desk’s surface hasn’t seen daylight in twelve years, judging by a paper dated July 1998 that peeks out from the bottom of a pile. On his office door hangs a poster of Yoda and his admonition: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Meyer split his days between the library and ball fields. A science and math whiz, he enrolled at Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve), thinking he’d be an engineer. But he ended up instead majoring in psychology at Wittenberg, a small Ohio liberal arts school. In 1964, he came to U-M to do graduate work in mathematical psychology, which seeks to quantify human behavior. “Many of the top people in the field were here,” says Meyer, his voice registering nostalgic excitement. Among the first to study “semantic memory”–how words and their meanings are stored and retrieved in the brain–Meyer quickly became a rising star.

“I got discovered, so to speak,” he says. And just in time. In 1969, after completing his doctorate, he was about to be drafted when Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey snagged him. His new job was deemed essential to national defense, so he escaped the Vietnam War.

He stayed at Bell for eight years, enjoying the labs’ heady atmosphere of unshackled scientific inquiry. But he’d always wanted to be a college professor, teaching as well as doing research, so he returned to U-M in 1977. “It worked out far beyond my wildest dreams,” he says.

During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, he was inspired by his students to undertake many new lines of investigation, conducting experiments that shed light on the “cognitive architecture” of information processing in the brain, as well as hand-eye coordination and other “perceptual-motor interactions.”

“I got well known for that kind of research,” says Meyer, with a figurative wave of the hand concerning stuff that’s now old hat to him. “I made some interesting discoveries.”

Meyer was one of the earliest academic researchers to use computers in processing experimental data, and he grew increasingly intrigued by the close match between the workings of the human brain and the operating systems of computers. Then, in the early 1990s, the navy proposed that he and David Kieras, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, collaborate on a long-term research project. Its goal: to come up with a powerful new model for exploring and predicting human behavior in practical situations–such as piloting ships and planes.

In 1992, Meyer and Kieras opened the Brain, Cognition, & Action Laboratory and started enlisting U-M students for basic experiments. “We were among the first to build theories that took into account the interaction between the mind, the brain, and the body,” Meyer says–as opposed to studying the mind as a disembodied entity. They wanted to learn how thought worked, not abstractly, but in the service of action.

The lab “enabled me to bring together all the previous threads of my research,” Meyer says. For an academic keenly engaged in his craft, nothing could be more fulfilling.

But suddenly, that work no longer mattered.

In August 1995, a sleep-deprived graduate student just back from a road trip to the East Coast ran a red light at Stadium and South Industrial and broadsided a car driven by Meyer’s younger son, Tim. Just weeks away from starting his senior year at Pioneer, Tim died in the accident, and his father, mother, and older brother were devastated.

His grief caused Meyer to take stock. “You gotta go on and make the best of what there is afterwards,” he says now, softly. He continued to teach, but for many months, he couldn’t do any research. “I lost zest for what I was doing,” he says. “It seemed like pretty mundane stuff.”

In 1994, Meyer and two of his graduate students had written a seminal paper on the lab’s early findings about multitasking. The paper was submitted to the American Psychological Association, but by the time of Tim’s death had been returned to the authors for revision. Due to Meyer’s state of mind, it languished for years.

Though unpublished, the paper nonetheless became widely known among Meyer’s peers in cognitive psychology. “It was a samizdat document,” he chuckles. “While underground, it was one of the two or three most influential papers on the topic,” frequently cited by other researchers.

Finally, in August 2001, six years after Tim’s death, the revised paper was published in the APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology. During the interim the APA had changed its stance on the value of public relations. Until the late 1990s, the organization had rarely sought publicity, feeling mass media exposure would sully an academic’s reputation. By the turn of the century, however, the APA had opened its own press office.

In 1995, few people had been concerned about multitasking. Cell phones and email were just starting to become popular, and text messages were unknown. If Meyer’s paper had been published and promoted then, it wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows outside of academia.

In 2001, however, APA’s press release unleashed a deluge. The media immediately began calling Meyer–he was swamped with inquiries the weekend it came out, including CNN, Lou Dobbs, and NPR. By Monday he was on ABC’s morning show.

The calls and emails have kept coming ever since–and not just from the media worldwide, but from anxious parents, overtaxed workers, and concerned teachers. In response, Meyer has embraced his bully pulpit with the attitude that it’s a gift.

“If Tim had not died, none of this would have happened,” Meyer says. His son’s death also explains “why I want to talk to the media about the work that I’ve done.” The driver who hit Tim’s car wasn’t phoning or texting–but she surely was distracted.

Meyer keeps his message boiled down to the essentials. He does not talk about how his research actually showed that some people, with practice, can multitask under certain limited experimental conditions. Instead, he focuses on the loss of time and focus when people do several things at the same time, or switch back and forth between tasks. His take-home message: multitasking is inefficient–and can be very dangerous.

“I get the opportunity to rant and rave about the dangers of cell phone use while driving,” Meyer says. “So I do. And it seems to have given Tim’s death some meaning.”

In his lab in the basement of East Hall, Meyer deals four cards face up on the table–a nine of each suit. He then hands me a deck of twelve more cards. I have to turn them over, one at a time, and sort them by suits, placing them beneath the corresponding club, heart, diamond, or spade.

Since I play bridge, I should be pretty good at this task. Turns out it takes me twelve seconds to sort twelve cards.

Next, he has me sort twelve cards by number. I do that in thirteen seconds.

Now, he gives me twelve cards and tells me to alternate between sorting by suit and sorting by number. It takes me twenty-five seconds.

This is a basic experiment in “sequential multitasking.” Each time I switched back and forth between the two methods of sorting, it cost me about one extra second.

Next, Meyer demonstrates an experiment in “simultaneous multitasking.” He gives me a three-digit number, and I have to count aloud backwards from it by threes. “257,” he says. “254, 251, 248…,” I reply. I’m not bad at this task either. In ten seconds, I can come up with ten correct numbers. Then I do the suit-sorting task again: ten cards in ten seconds, as before.

But when I have to do both tasks at once–sort the cards into suits while counting backwards–I struggle to produce seven cards and eight numbers in ten seconds. I’ve achieved “partial time sharing,” says Meyer–but not “perfect time sharing.” I’ve lost efficiency at each task by doing both of them simultaneously. It’s the kind of thing that happens in almost all multitasking.

In the nearly two decades since the Brain, Cognition, & Action Lab opened, people’s real lives have increasingly come to resemble the experiments Meyer and his colleagues have conducted there. It’s a world of increasingly divided attention.

When I started my career as a journalist more than thirty years ago, I wrote stories on a manual typewriter. It was useful for nothing but writing. Now I compose on a computer–while checking emails and baseball scores, Googling, and fielding cell phone calls and text messages. Distractions abound.

When a new technology becomes available, it’s always hailed as a breakthrough that will make life more convenient. It’s assumed that human beings will swiftly adapt–after all, what’s harmful about having so many more choices?

The problem, it turns out, is that we usually overestimate how many activities we can handle: “The ordinary person is not skilled at doing task analysis,” says Meyer. “You think that if you are talking on the phone and driving with your hands and feet, that there is no conflict. You fail to appreciate that both cell phoning and driving require language–reading signs, for instance. And that the brain has only one language channel as well as essentially just one visual perception and imagery channel. Each channel is needed for each task and can’t be used for both at once, so something’s got to give.” If you’re driving while talking on the phone to your spouse about rearranging the furniture in your home, your mind is picturing your living room–and if an important road sign flashes by or a vehicle pulls in front of you, it will take you precious moments to refocus your attention on the road.

Beyond the danger of accidents, Meyer says, there are plenty of other drawbacks to multitasking. The added stress can damage your health, and you can become emotionally swamped under the weight of unceasing tasks and choices. “What’s at stake in the scientific and practical debates over multitasking,” he says, “is the quality of our everyday lives, the safety of literally millions of people, and ultimately the sanity of the entire planet.”

In their research for the navy, Meyer and Kieras came up with a universal theory of cognition–a way of understanding how the brain works in real-world situations. Their model is called EPIC, for Executive Process Interactive Control.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in explaining how the human brain actually

works,” Meyer says. “Before our research, there was relatively little appreciation of the degree of flexibility and the importance of executive processes”–analogous to computer operating systems. Because psychology’s previous paradigm posited that all inputs to the brain were processed through a single channel, “we took a lot of flak in the early nineties from researchers who said we had it all wrong”–that it couldn’t be true that people had the capacity to perform multiple tasks. Back then, Meyer says, he was a “radical, controversial figure” in his field.

Now, the debate is still ongoing, and Meyer’s become something of a guru. People ask him all kinds of things all the time. One common question is about those alleged “supertaskers.” His answer? “There are individual differences in our capacity” to multitask, but “when push comes to shove, everyone is better at doing one task at a time.”

When I ask Meyer whether younger people are adapting better to a fragmented world–the only world they’ve known–he replies that he’s certain their brains are different but not enough research has been done to determine how. “To quote Buffalo Springfield,” he says, “‘There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.'”

The brain is very plastic, he says, and any kind of learning rewires it. “But the system is not infinitely malleable. We don’t know what changes in the brain have been taking place or are likely to be taking place in the future.”

What is clear, he says, is “that we have to take this all seriously. There are dragons out there waiting to burn and consume us–if we’re not thoughtful and wise about how we proceed.”

Some might say it’s be too late, that we’ve already lost the battle with distraction. But Meyer is optimistic. In fact, he’s a firm believer in the perfectability of the human race.

A few years ago, Meyer’s deepening interest in Eastern spirituality–an exploration that started soon after his son’s death–brought him into contact with the inner circles of Tibetan Buddhist leadership. The Dalai Lama, a distinctly modern religious leader, is interested in the research of Western cognitive scientists and regularly interacts with them under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute.

Meyer has taken on an administrative role in the institute, which regularly convenes dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama, who Meyer calls “the greatest famous living person on Earth,” cautioning that each word in that description is crucial.

Last year, as part of a daylong conference, Meyer gave the Dalai Lama a personal PowerPoint presentation. Titled “Meditation, Multi-Tasking, and the Mind,” it discussed how his research on multitasking might point to ways to improve meditation techniques. The Dalai Lama responded favorably, Meyer says–not a given, because he’s since seen the revered man become angry on occasion at presumptuous people.

In late April, Meyer was to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. A few weeks later, he plans to visit the University of Wisconsin for the opening of an institute called the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. The Dalai Lama is scheduled to be at the latter event–and Meyer is looking forward to talking with him again. “The Dalai Lama likes me,” he says, a twinkle in his eyes. “I haven’t pissed him off–yet.”