Tag Archives: multitasking

Task Switching Skills Improved With Musical Training

Ira Hyman

Ira Hyman

“Multitasking” is more accurately described as “task switching” because people typically can’t effectively sustain split attention.
However, it is possible to alternate between two mental tasks, but there is a “cognitive switching cost” in decreased speed and performance accuracy.

S. Matthew Boss

S. Matthew Boss

One vivid example of performance decrements when performing simple “multitasking” is illustrated in a study of walking while using a mobile phone, conducted by Western Washington University’s Ira E. Hyman Jr., S. Matthew Boss, Breanne M. Wise-Swanson, Kira E. McKenzie, and Jenna M. Caggiano.

Ira Hyman-Unicycling Clown Attentional BlindnessThey found that walking and talking caused most volunteers to experience “inattentional blindness” to unicycling clown.

Breanne M Wise-Swanson

Breanne M Wise-Swanson

In addition, the “multitasking” participants walked more slowly, changed directions more frequently, and were less likely to acknowledge other people than individuals.

Hyman and team concluded, “Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity,” and went on to note the dangers of driving while talking on a phone.
In fact, a previous blog reviewed the evidence for reduced driving performance when listening to music, a less-demanding activity than texting or talking on a telephone.

Ranate Meuter

Ranate Meuter

Even switching between two well-practiced languages can reduce cognitive processing speed, found Queensland University of Techology’s Renata Meuter and University of Oxford’s Alan Allport.

They asked bilingual participants to name numerals in their first language or second language in an unpredictable sequence.
Participants responded more slowly when they switched to the other language, indicating a “cognitive switching cost.”

Volunteers named digits associated with a background color in their first language or second language.
They named digits in their second language more slowly, but were slower in their first language after the language changed from the previous cue.

Jeffrey Evans

Jeffrey Evans

Involuntary persistence of the second-acquired language interfered with participants actively suppressing their original language, leading to delays when responding in their more well practiced “birth tongue,” they argued.

As tasks become more complex, the performance-hampering effects of task switching increase, according to United Stated Federal Aviation Authority’s Joshua Rubinstein with Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer of University of Michigan, who evaluated switching between different task like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects.

David Meyer

David Meyer

Like Meuter and Allport, they noted that people switching tasks navigate two stages of “executive control:”

  • Goal shifting: “I want to do this now instead of that,”
  • Rule activation: “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”.Rubinstein’s team estimated that traversing these phases can reduce productivity by much as 40 percent, and noted that the problem is compounded for individuals with damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Linda Moradzadeh

Linda Moradzadeh

However, musical training seems to reduce the costs of task switching, found York University’s Linda Moradzadeh, Galit Blumenthal, and Melody Wiseheart.
This team matched more than 150 similar age and socioeconomic status participants who were also:

  • Monolingual musicians (averaging 12 years of musical training) or
  • Bilingual musicians (averaging 12 years of musical training) or
  • Bilingual non-musicians or
  • Monolingual non-musicians.
Galit Blumenthal

Galit Blumenthal

Volunteers performed task switching and dual-task challenges, along with intelligence and vocabulary measures.
Musicians demonstrated fewer global and local switch costs compared with non-musicians and bilingual volunteers.
This finding contrasts other results regarding bilingualism’s advantage for task switching performance in a previous blog post.

Melody Wiseheart

Melody Wiseheart

In addition, Moradzadeh’s team found no benefit of combining bilingual expertise with musical training to reduce task-switching costs,

These results suggest that musical training can contribute to increased ability to shift between mental sets in both task switching and dual-task efforts, thanks to “superior ability to maintain and manipulate competing information in memory, allowing for efficient “global” or holistic processing.”

-*To what extent do you find “multitasking” an effective practice to accomplish cognitive tasks?

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Women’s Multitasking Skill Linked to Neural Network Patterns

Diane Halpern

Diane Halpern

Differences between men’s and women’s performance on cognitive tasks, particularly mathematics and science have been observed for decades, with men generally excelling at motor and spatial tasks and women excelling in memory and social cognition tasks.

Camilla Benbow

Camilla Benbow

Claremont McKenna College’s Diane F. Halpern led an extensive review of these performance differences with Camilla P. Benbow of Vanderbilt University, University of Missouri‘s David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur of University of Pennsylvania, Janet Shibley Hyde and Morton Ann Gernsbacher of University of Wisconsin. 

David Geary

David Geary

Their evidence “provided no single or simple answer” to contrasting skills by gender but a comprehensive brain imaging study of more than 400 males and more than 500 females between ages 8 and 22 years, provides evidence for popular observations.

Madhura Ingalhalika

Madhura Ingalhalika

Using diffusion tensor imaging, University of Pennsylvania’s Madhura Ingalhalikar, Alex Smith, Drew Parker, Theodore D. Satterthwaite, Mark A. Elliott, Kosha Ruparel, Raquel E. Gur, Ruben C. Gur and Ragini Verma with Hakon Hakonarson of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, demonstrated that male and female brains differ in the network of neural connections.
Known as the “structural connectome,” these connections between neural structures were described by Indiana University’s Olaf Sporns, who reviewed imaging techniques to visualize their activity.

Ted Satterthwaite

Ted Satterthwaite

These gender-linked structural differences result in differing competencies.
Ingalhalikar’s team observed that male brains structures show more connections within the front and back of the brain hemisphere in the supratentorial region.

Olaf Sporns

Olaf Sporns

This area connects perception and coordinated action and enables males’ skill in quickly perceiving and applying information to a single complex task, spatial reasoning, and learning motor skills.

Ingalhalikar connectomeIn contrast, female brains contain more neural connections between hemispheres in supratentorial regions. 
This connection pattern enables females to recall faces and execute multiple complex tasks simultaneously more easily than males due the increased neural connections between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

Dardo Tomasi

Dardo Tomasi

Building on earlier work on these differences by Brookhaven National Lab’s Dardo Tomasi and Nora D. Volkow of National Institute on Drug Abuse, Ingalhalikar’s team found these differences were reversed in the cerebellar connections, where male brains showed greater intrahemispheric connectivity and female brains demonstrated more interhemispheric connections.

Nora Volkow

Nora Volkow

These structural differences lead to different development for girls and boys from an early age, and result in significant, less modifiable differences by adolescence and adulthood. 

Frequently-observed differences in male and female performance are rooted in different neural connection patterns by gender.

 -*What exceptions have you seen to findings of women’s skill in multitasking and social insight, and men’s competence in spatial reasoning and motor skill acquisition?

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