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Research Bernoulli Institute Research

Multi-tasking in human cognition

Key words: multi-tasking
Themes: healthy aging, cognitive science

Short description:

People have the remarkable ability to do many things at the same time. The things that people do at the same time often interact with each other. This can lead to interference, where the performance on individual tasks suffers. But in other cases, interference is minimal or absent, and there are even cases where there is a positive effect of multitasking on performance (see the following blog for details).

Our research focusses on two questions: when does multitasking lead to interference, and why are people multitasking in the first place?

When does multitasking lead to interference?

To predict interference in multitasking, Dario Salvucci and I have developed a theory called threaded cognition. It predict that multitasking interference occurs if two tasks need the same brain module at the same time. Brain modules can be vision, or motor, but also long-term memory, working memory or the perception of time. The theory is implemented within the ACT-R cognitive architecture to be able to make precise predictions.

One of these "cognitive bottlenecks" that is of particular importance is working memory. Strong interference is produced by two tasks are done concurrently that both require working memory. Our neuroimaging study has shown that the locus of this interference is in the parietal cortex.

If you want to used threaded cognition in your own models, you can download it with examples from the threaded cognition webpage.

Why do people multitask?

To understand human multitasking, and how to best support people in their multitasking, it is necessary to know why people multitask in the first place. According to threaded cognition, multitasking is productive if the new tasks uses different brain areas than the task you are already doing, but do people use this as a criterion for their choices? To investigate this, we conduct experiments in which subjects can make choices in their multitasking, and we are interested in what prompts their choices, and whether these choices are rational on a local and on a global level.

Group leader: Niels Taatgen
Participating researchers: 6
Research programme: Cognitive Modeling
Research Institute: Bernoulli Institute
Faculty: Faculty of Science and Engineering
Graduate school: Graduate School of Science and Engineering (GSSE)
Funding: from ERC starting grant

Collaboration: Department of Computer Science, Drexel university, USA

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Last modified:03 March 2020 2.51 p.m.