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Prof. Niels Taatgen: ‘People are better at multitasking than they think’

01 September 2009
People have a fundamental ability to multitask and can usually do more things at the same time than they think, states professor of Cognitive Modelling Niels Taatgen. ‘We have an innate tendency to search for stimulation, to stretch our mental bandwidth. That tendency cannot be suppressed. Forbidding the use of a TomTom in a car, which the police recently suggested, is thus not productive. Instead we should conduct better research into which tasks can be combined and how we can make multitasking safer and more efficient.’
A multitasking person and his brain are just like a chef and his kitchen. A chef can work simultaneously on different meals but his kitchen machines can only process one task at a time. As long as the chef organizes how he uses the machines, everything goes smoothly. However, if several meals have to go into the oven simultaneously, for example, then there’s a problem. In the same way people can do several things at once as long as the individual parts of the brain can implement their tasks one at a time. There’s no problem with walking and talking at the same time because different parts of the brain are at work. Talking and doing sums is less easy to combine because they call on the same part of the brain – just as a pizza and a crème brulée can never go in the same oven.

Computer models

When does interference occur? In other words, when is a part of the brain overworked? That’s the major question behind research into multitasking conducted by professor of artificial intelligence Niels Taatgen. By asking test subjects to perform various tasks simultaneously and by registering reaction times and results, Taatgen is charting when parts of the brain become overworked. Intensive use is also made of neuro-imaging facilities (fMRI). The computer models that Taatgen has developed help to predict when multitasking can lead to unsafe situations (e.g. in traffic), when multitasking becomes counterproductive (e.g. in situations where staff are too often distracted from their work) and how this can be made easier.

Cognitive load

Driving a car and operating a navigation system should be combinable from a motor perspective, but interference can occur if the driver has to call on cognitive brain function for both tasks at the same time. Taatgen: ‘We investigated this in a driving simulator, where test subjects had to operate a navigation system. Even when the driving became more complicated, they could still enter an address if they were given it letter by letter. However, if they had to remember the address themselves, they weaved about more and the chances of an accident increased.’ This experiment reveals that using a hands-free set does not automatically increase road safety. Taatgen: ‘Most of the work, and the greatest danger, is not in operating the machine but in conducting a conversation.’

Analysing problems

People are better at multitasking than they think, is Taatgen’s opinion. ‘The general opinion often concentrates on what goes wrong, on accidents caused by using navigation equipment, for example. But when you realise how complex driving – already an intensive form of multitasking itself – and using a navigation system is, then it’s actually a miracle that there are so few accidents. I say that in principle people are good at multitasking so we shouldn’t forbid it but properly analyse the situations where it goes wrong and find solutions for them.’

Curriculum vitae

Niels Taatgen (1964) studied informatics and psychology at the University of Groningen and gained his PhD in 1999 with a thesis entitled ‘Learning without limits’ from the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences. He subsequently became a university lecturer in the department of Cognitive Sciences, later Artificial Intelligence, of the University of Groningen. After a period working partly at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (US) and partly at the University of Groningen, he became professor of Cognitive Modelling at the Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Engineering (ALICE) of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Groningen on 1 August 2009.


Prof. N.A. Taatgen

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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