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Scientists help U.S. troops in war and people at home with multitasking

A generation of U.S. military personnel, who grew up playing complex video games while talking on the phone or surfing the Web, now is fighting a war where many life-and-death decisions must be made simultaneously and instantaneously.

U-M research is helping U.S. troops get an edge by minimizing multitasking errors and improving efficiency. The U.S. Office of Naval Research has awarded researchers David Kieras and David Meyer more than $1.5 million in research grants over the past decade for making such multitasking easier. The findings can be applied on the battlefield and to civilians at home, the researchers say.

Meyer, a psychology professor, says his research has shown it often is quicker and more effective to do one task at a time rather than switching back and forth between several tasks. But people sometimes need to do many tasks simultaneously, and his research has found that in some cases, they can become skilled at certain varieties of multitasking. This may be possible because the brain is like a computer with "parallel processors" that allow for different forms of simultaneous input and output. As long as the different processors are working in tandem, multitasking may be efficient, but if one of the brain's processors is trying to do many similar tasks all at once, it will slow down and sputter like a locked-up personal computer, he says.

To deal with such problems, everyone has a mental CEO that can coordinate various tasks when he or she needs to multitask, and research has discovered strategies for choosing "the best ways to timeshare," Meyer says.

"If you have two tasks that each require talking to someone and thinking about something at the same time, you're probably going to be in big trouble," Meyer says. "For example, if you're a Navy pilot like Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun,' it's really hard to get your orders from headquarters while you're trying to take off or win a dog fight, but it's fine talking on the radio when you're flying level on auto-pilot."

He notes that a military pilot may have to fly complicated evasive maneuvers, dodging enemy planes and anti-aircraft while battling the enemy and not hitting U.S. or allied forces, but everyone has limits on how much he or she can handle at once. The U-M research is helping troops multitask better and improving military efficiency in three ways:

• Better design of equipment. Research has suggested possible changes in designs and layout of military equipment to give U.S. troops an edge

• Selection of personnel. The research shows some people are better at multitasking than others, and it helps to put the best people in the hardest jobs

• Type of training. The research is helping the military improve training of personnel for harder tasks.

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