working memory

Inhibitory control deficits common in those with MCI

January, 2013

Impairment in executive function is apparently far more common in those with MCI than previously thought, with the most common and severe impairment occurring in inhibitory control.

Providing some support for the finding I recently reported — that problems with semantic knowledge in those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s might be rooted in an inability to inhibit immediate perceptual information in favor of conceptual information — a small study has found that executive function (and inhibitory control in particular) is impaired in far more of those with MCI than was previously thought.

The study involved 40 patients with amnestic MCI (single or multiple domain) and 32 healthy older adults. Executive function was tested across multiple sub-domains: divided attention, working memory, inhibitory control, verbal fluency, and planning.

As a group, those with MCI performed significantly more poorly in all 5 sub-domains. All MCI patients showed significant impairment in at least one sub-domain of executive functioning, with almost half performing poorly on all of the tests. The sub-domain most frequently and severely impaired was inhibitory control.

The finding is in sharp contrast with standard screening tests and clinical interviews, which have estimated executive function impairment in only 15% of those with MCI.

Executive function is crucial for many aspects of our behavior, from planning and organization to self-control to (as we saw in the previous news report) basic knowledge. It is increasingly believed that inhibitory control might be a principal cause of age-related cognitive decline, through its effect on working memory.

All this adds weight to the idea that we should be focusing our attention on ways to improve inhibitory control when it declines. Although training to improve working memory capacity has not been very successful, specific training targeted at inhibitory control might have more luck. Something to hope for!

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Cognition impaired by low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides

January, 2013

A meta-analysis has concluded that low-level exposure to organophosphates has a small-to-moderate negative effect on cognitive function.

Organophosphate pesticides are the most widely used insecticides in the world; they are also (according to WHO), one of the most hazardous pesticides to vertebrate animals. While the toxic effects of high levels of organophosphates are well established, the effects of long-term low-level exposure are still controversial.

A meta-analysis involving 14 studies and more than 1,600 participants, reveals that the majority of well-designed studies undertaken over the last 20 years have found a significant association between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired cognitive function. Impairment was small to moderate, and mainly concerned psychomotor speed, executive function, visuospatial ability, working memory, and visual memory.

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Simple semantic task reveals early cognitive problems in older adults

January, 2013

A study finds early semantic problems in those with MCI, correlating with a reduced capacity to carry out everyday tasks.

A small study shows how those on the road to Alzheimer’s show early semantic problems long before memory problems arise, and that such problems can affect daily life.

The study compared 25 patients with amnestic MCI, 27 patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's and 70 cognitively fit older adults (aged 55-90), on a non-verbal task involving size differences (for example, “What is bigger: a key or a house?”; “What is bigger: a key or an ant?”). The comparisons were presented in three different ways: as words; as images reflecting real-world differences; as incongruent images (e.g., a big ant and a small house).

Both those with MCI and those with AD were significantly less accurate, and significantly slower, in all three conditions compared to healthy controls, and they had disproportionately more difficulty on those comparisons where the size distance was smaller. But MCI and AD patients experienced their biggest problems when the images were incongruent – the ant bigger than the house. Those with MCI performed at a level between that of healthy controls and those with AD.

This suggests that perceptual information is having undue influence in a judgment task that requires conceptual knowledge.

Because semantic memory is organized according to relatedness, and because this sort of basic information has been acquired a long time ago, this simple test is quite a good way to test semantic knowledge. As previous research has indicated, the problem doesn’t seem to be a memory (retrieval) one, but one reflecting an actual loss or corruption of semantic knowledge. But perhaps, rather than a loss of data, it reflects a failure of selective attention/inhibition — an inability to inhibit immediate perceptual information in favor of more relevant conceptual information.

How much does this matter? Poor performance on the semantic distance task correlated with impaired ability to perform everyday tasks, accounting (together with delayed recall) for some 35% of the variance in scores on this task — while other cognitive abilities such as processing speed, executive function, verbal fluency, naming, did not have a significant effect. Everyday functional capacity was assessed using a short form of the UCSD Skills Performance Assessment scale (a tool generally used to identify everyday problems in patients with schizophrenia), which presents scenarios such as planning a trip to the beach, determining a route, dialing a telephone number, and writing a check.

The finding indicates that semantic memory problems are starting to occur early in the deterioration, and may be affecting general cognitive decline. However, if the problems reflect an access difficulty rather than data loss, it may be possible to strengthen these semantic processing connections through training — and thus improve general cognitive processing (and ability to perform everyday tasks).

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Learning another language boosts white matter

November, 2012

Foreign language learning increases the white matter in the language network and the bridge joining the hemispheres, perhaps helping explain why bilinguals have better executive control.

In my last report, I discussed a finding that intensive foreign language learning ‘grew’ the size of certain brain regions. This growth reflects gray matter increase. Another recent study looks at a different aspect: white matter.

In the study, monthly brain scans were taken of 27 college students, of whom 11 were taking an intensive nine-month Chinese language course. These brain scans were specifically aimed at tracking white matter changes in the students’ brains.

Significant changes were indeed observed in the brains of the language learners. To the researchers’ surprise, however, the biggest changes were observed in an area not previously considered part of the language network: the white matter tracts that cross the corpus callosum, the main bridge between the hemispheres. (I’m not quite sure why they were surprised, since a previous study had found that bilinguals showed higher white matter integrity in the corpus callosum.)

Significant changes were also observed within the left-hemisphere language network and in the right temporal lobe. The rate of increase in white matter was linear, showing a steady progression with each passing month.

The researchers suggest that plasticity in the adult brain may differ from that seen in children’s brains. While children’s brains change mainly through the pruning of unwanted connections and the death of unwanted cells, adult brains may rely mainly on neurogenesis and myelinogenesis.

The growth of new myelin is a process that is still largely mysterious, but it’s suggested that activity at the axons (the extensions of neurons that carry the electrical signals) might trigger increases in the size, density, or number of oligodendrocytes (the cells responsible for the myelin sheaths). This process is thought to be mediated by astrocytes, and in recent years we have begun to realize that astrocytes, long regarded as mere ‘support cells’, are in fact quite important for learning and memory. Just how important is something researchers are still working on.

The finding of changes between the frontal hemispheres and caudate nuclei is consistent with a previously-expressed idea that language learning requires the development of a network to control switching between languages.

Does the development of such a network enhance the task-switching facility in working memory? Previous research has found that bilinguals tend to have better executive control than monolinguals, and it has been suggested that the experience of managing two (or more) languages reorganizes certain brain networks, creating a more effective basis for executive control.

As in the previous study, the language studied was very different from the students’ native language, and they had no previous experience of it. The level of intensity was of course much less.

I do wonder if the fact that the language being studied was Mandarin Chinese limits the generality of these findings. Because of the pictorial nature of the written language, Chinese has been shown to involve a wider network of regions than European languages.

Nevertheless, the findings add to the evidence that adult brains retain the capacity to reorganize themselves, and add to growing evidence that we should be paying more attention to white matter changes.

Reference: 

[3143] Schlegel, A. A., Rudelson J. J., & Tse P. U.
(2012).  White Matter Structure Changes as Adults Learn a Second Language.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 24(8), 1664 - 1670.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240–250. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.03.001

Luk, G. et al. (2011) Lifelong bilingualism maintains white matter integrity in older adults. J. Neurosci. 31, 16808–16813

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Growing the brain with a new language

November, 2012

A new study adds to the growing evidence for the cognitive benefits of learning a new language, and hints at why some people might be better at this than others.

A small Swedish brain imaging study adds to the evidence for the cognitive benefits of learning a new language by investigating the brain changes in students undergoing a highly intensive language course.

The study involved an unusual group: conscripts in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy. These young people, selected for their talent for languages, undergo an intensive course to allow them to learn a completely novel language (Egyptian Arabic, Russian or Dari) fluently within ten months. This requires them to acquire new vocabulary at a rate of 300-500 words every week.

Brain scans were taken of 14 right-handed volunteers from this group (6 women; 8 men), and 17 controls that were matched for age, years of education, intelligence, and emotional stability. The controls were medical and cognitive science students. The scans were taken before the start of the course/semester, and three months later.

The brain scans revealed that the language students showed significantly greater changes in several specific regions. These regions included three areas in the left hemisphere: the dorsal middle frontal gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus, and the superior temporal gyrus. These regions all grew significantly. There was also some, more selective and smaller, growth in the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus in the right hemisphere. The hippocampus also grew significantly more for the interpreters compared to the controls, and this effect was greater in the right hippocampus.

Among the interpreters, language proficiency was related to increases in the right hippocampus and left superior temporal gyrus. Increases in the left middle frontal gyrus were related to teacher ratings of effort — those who put in the greatest effort (regardless of result) showed the greatest increase in this area.

In other words, both learning, and the effort put into learning, had different effects on brain development.

The main point, however, is that language learning in particular is having this effect. Bear in mind that the medical and cognitive science students are also presumably putting in similar levels of effort into their studies, and yet no such significant brain growth was observed.

Of course, there is no denying that the level of intensity with which the interpreters are acquiring a new language is extremely unusual, and it cannot be ruled out that it is this intensity, rather than the particular subject matter, that is crucial for this brain growth.

Neither can it be ruled out that the differences between the groups are rooted in the individuals selected for the interpreter group. The young people chosen for the intensive training at the interpreter academy were chosen on the basis of their talent for languages. Although brain scans showed no differences between the groups at baseline, we cannot rule out the possibility that such intensive training only benefited them because they possessed this potential for growth.

A final caveat is that the soldiers all underwent basic military training before beginning the course — three months of intense physical exercise. Physical exercise is, of course, usually very beneficial for the brain.

Nevertheless, we must give due weight to the fact that the brain scans of the two groups were comparable at baseline, and the changes discussed occurred specifically during this three-month learning period. Moreover, there is growing evidence that learning a new language is indeed ‘special’, if only because it involves such a complex network of processes and brain regions.

Given that people vary in their ‘talent’ for foreign language learning, and that learning a new language does tend to become harder as we get older, it is worth noting the link between growth of the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus and language proficiency. The STG is involved in acoustic-phonetic processes, while the hippocampus is presumably vital for the encoding of new words into long-term memory.

Interestingly, previous research with children has suggested that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span — specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called phonological short-term memory. While this is less important for adults learning another language, it remains important for one particular category of new words: words that have no ready association to known words. Given the languages being studied by these Swedish interpreters, it seems likely that much if not all of their new vocabulary would fall into this category.

I wonder if the link with STG is more significant in this study, because the languages are so different from the students’ native language? I also wonder if, and to what extent, you might be able to improve your phonological short-term memory with this sort of intensive practice.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that a previous study found that language proficiency correlated with growth in the left inferior frontal gyrus in a group of English-speaking exchange students learning German in Switzerland. Is this difference because the training was less intensive? because the students had prior knowledge of German? because German and English are closely related in vocabulary? (I’m picking the last.)

The researchers point out that hippocampal plasticity might also be a critical factor in determining an individual’s facility for learning a new language. Such plasticity does, of course, tend to erode with age — but this can be largely counteracted if you keep your hippocampus limber (as it were).

All these are interesting speculations, but the main point is clear: the findings add to the growing evidence that bilingualism and foreign language learning have particular benefits for the brain, and for protecting against cognitive decline.

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Why acute stress makes it hard to think properly

October, 2012

A rat study indicates that acute stress disrupts feedback loops in the prefrontal cortex that may be keeping information alive in working memory.

Stress is a major cause of workplace accidents, and most of us are only too familiar with the effects of acute stress on our thinking. However, although the cognitive effects are only too clear, research has had little understanding of how stress has this effect. A new rat study sheds some light.

In the study, brain activity was monitored while five rats performed a working memory task during acute noise stress. Under these stressful conditions, the rats performed dramatically worse on their working memory task, with performance dropping from an average of 93% success to 65%.

The stress also significantly increased the discharge rate of a subset of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex during two phases of the task: planning and assessment.

This brain region is vital for working memory and executive functions such as goal maintenance and emotion regulation. The results suggest that the firing and re-firing of these neurons keeps recent information ‘fresh’. When the re-firing is delayed, the information can be lost.

What seems to be happening is that the stress is causing these neurons to work even more furiously, but instead of performing their normal task — concentrating on keeping important information ‘alive’ during brief delays — they are reacting to all the other, distracting and less relevant, stimuli.

The findings contradict the view that stress simply suppresses prefrontal cortex activity, and suggests a different approach to treatment, one that emphasizes shutting out distractions.

The findings are also exciting from a theoretical viewpoint, suggesting as they do that this excitatory recursive activity of neurons within the prefrontal cortex provide the neural substrate for working memory. That is, that we ‘hold’ information in the front of our mind through reverberating feedback loops within this network of neurons, that keep information alive during the approximately 1.5 seconds of our working memory ‘span’.

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How stress affects your learning

October, 2012

A small study shows that stress makes it more likely for learning to use more complicated and subconscious processes that involve brain regions involved in habit and procedural learning.

We know that stress has a complicated relationship with learning, but in general its effect is negative, and part of that is due to stress producing anxious thoughts that clog up working memory. A new study adds another perspective to that.

The brain scanning study involved 60 young adults, of whom half were put under stress by having a hand immersed in ice-cold water for three minutes under the supervision of a somewhat unfriendly examiner, while the other group immersed their hand in warm water without such supervision (cortisol and blood pressure tests confirmed the stress difference).

About 25 minutes after this (cortisol reaches peak levels around 25 minutes after stress), participants’ brains were scanned while participants alternated between a classification task and a visual-motor control task. The classification task required them to look at cards with different symbols and learn to predict which combinations of cards announced rain and which sunshine. Afterward, they were given a short questionnaire to determine their knowledge of the task. The control task was similar but there were no learning demands (they looked at cards on the screen and made a simple perceptual decision).

In order to determine the strategy individuals used to do the classification task, ‘ideal’ performance was modeled for four possible strategies, of which two were ‘simple’ (based on single cues) and two ‘complex’ (based on multiple cues).

Here’s the interesting thing: while both groups were successful in learning the task, the two groups learned to do it in different ways. Far more of the non-stressed group activated the hippocampus to pursue a simple and deliberate strategy, focusing on individual symbols rather than combinations of symbols. The stressed group, on the other hand, were far more likely to use the striatum only, in a more complex and subconscious processing of symbol combinations.

The stressed group also remembered significantly fewer details of the classification task.

There was no difference between the groups on the (simple, perceptual) control task.

In other words, it seems that stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, causing the brain to fall back on more ‘primitive’ mechanisms that involve procedural learning. Striatum-based procedural learning is less flexible than hippocampus-based declarative learning.

Why should this happen? Well, the non-conscious procedural learning going on in the striatum is much less demanding of cognitive resources, freeing up your working memory to do something important — like worrying about the source of the stress.

Unfortunately, such learning will not become part of your more flexible declarative knowledge base.

The finding may have implications for stress disorders such as depression, addiction, and PTSD. It may also have relevance for a memory phenomenon known as “forgotten baby syndrome”, in which parents forget their babies in the car. This may be related to the use of non-declarative memory, because of the stress they are experiencing.

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[3071] Schwabe, L., & Wolf O. T.
(2012).  Stress Modulates the Engagement of Multiple Memory Systems in Classification Learning.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 32(32), 11042 - 11049.

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Cut ‘visual clutter’ to help MCI & Alzheimer’s

October, 2012

A small study shows that those with MCI perform poorly on a visual discrimination task under high interference conditions, suggesting that reducing interference may improve cognitive performance.

Memory problems in those with mild cognitive impairment may begin with problems in visual discrimination and vulnerability to interference — a hopeful discovery in that interventions to improve discriminability and reduce interference may have a flow-on effect to cognition.

The study compared the performance on a complex object discrimination task of 7 patients diagnosed with amnestic MCI, 10 older adults considered to be at risk for MCI (because of their scores on a cognitive test), and 19 age-matched controls. The task involved the side-by-side comparison of images of objects, with participants required to say, within 15 seconds, whether the two objects were the same or different.

In the high-interference condition, the objects were blob-like and presented as black and white line-drawings, with some comparison pairs identical, while others only varied slightly in either shape or fill pattern. Objects were rotated to discourage a simple feature-matching strategy. In the low-interference condition, these line-drawings were interspersed with color photos of everyday objects, for which discriminability was dramatically easier. The two conditions were interspersed by a short break, with the low interference condition run in two blocks, before and after the high interference condition.

A control task, in which the participants compared two squares that could vary in size, was run at the end.

The study found that those with MCI, as well as those at risk of MCI, performed significantly worse than the control group in the high-interference condition. There was no difference in performance between those with MCI and those at risk of MCI. Neither group was impaired in the first low-interference condition, although the at-risk group did show significant impairment in the second low-interference condition. It may be that they had trouble recovering from the high-interference experience. However, the degree of impairment was much less than it was in the high-interference condition. It’s also worth noting that the performance on this second low-interference task was, for all groups, notably higher than it was on the first low-interference task.

There was no difference between any of the groups on the control task, indicating that fatigue wasn’t a factor.

The interference task was specifically chosen as one that involved the perirhinal cortex, but not the hippocampus. The task requires the conjunction of features — that is, you need to be able to see the object as a whole (‘feature binding’), not simply match individual features. The control task, which required only the discrimination of a single feature, shows that MCI doesn’t interfere with this ability.

I do note that the amount of individual variability on the interference tasks was noticeably greater in the MCI group than the others. The MCI group was of course smaller than the other groups, but variability wasn’t any greater for this group in the control task. Presumably this variability reflects progression of the impairment, but it would be interesting to test this with a larger sample, and map performance on this task against other cognitive tasks.

Recent research has suggested that the perirhinal cortex may provide protection from visual interference by inhibiting lower-level features. The perirhinal cortex is strongly connected to the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, two brain regions known to be affected very early in MCI and Alzheimer’s.

The findings are also consistent with other evidence that damage to the medial temporal lobe may impair memory by increasing vulnerability to interference. For example, one study has found that story recall was greatly improved in patients with MCI if they rested quietly in a dark room after hearing the story, rather than being occupied in other tasks.

There may be a working memory component to all this as well. Comparison of two objects does require shifting attention back and forth. This, however, is separate to what the researchers see as primary: a perceptual deficit.

All of this suggests that reducing “visual clutter” could help MCI patients with everyday tasks. For example, buttons on a telephone tend to be the same size and color, with the only difference lying in the numbers themselves. Perhaps those with MCI or early Alzheimer’s would be assisted by a phone with varying sized buttons and different colors.

The finding also raises the question: to what extent is the difficulty Alzheimer’s patients often have in recognizing a loved one’s face a discrimination problem rather than a memory problem?

Finally, the performance of the at-risk group — people who had no subjective concerns about their memory, but who scored below 26 on the MoCA (Montreal Cognitive Assessment — a brief screening tool for MCI) — suggests that vulnerability to visual interference is an early marker of cognitive impairment that may be useful in diagnosis. It’s worth noting that, across all groups, MoCA scores predicted performance on the high-interference task, but not on any of the other tasks.

So how much cognitive impairment rests on problems with interference?

Reference: 

Newsome, R. N., Duarte, A., & Barense, M. D. (2012). Reducing Perceptual Interference Improves Visual Discrimination in Mild Cognitive Impairment : Implications for a Model of Perirhinal Cortex Function, Hippocampus, 22, 1990–1999. doi:10.1002/hipo.22071

Della Sala S, Cowan N, Beschin N, Perini M. 2005. Just lying there, remembering: Improving recall of prose in amnesic patients with mild cognitive impairment by minimising interference. Memory, 13, 435–440.

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New direction for cognitive training in the elderly

October, 2012

A pilot study suggests declines in temporal processing are an important part of age-related cognitive decline, and shows how temporal training can significantly improve some cognitive abilities.

Here’s an exciting little study, implying as it does that one particular aspect of information processing underlies much of the cognitive decline in older adults, and that this can be improved through training. No, it’s not our usual suspect, working memory, it’s something far less obvious: temporal processing.

In the study, 30 older adults (aged 65-75) were randomly assigned to three groups: one that received ‘temporal training’, one that practiced common computer games (such as Solitaire and Mahjong), and a no-activity control. Temporal training was provided by a trademarked program called Fast ForWord Language® (FFW), which was developed to help children who have trouble reading, writing, and learning.

The training, for both training groups, occupied an hour a day, four days a week, for eight weeks.

Cognitive assessment, carried out at the beginning and end of the study, and for the temporal training group again 18 months later, included tests of sequencing abilities (how quickly two sounds could be presented and still be accurately assessed for pitch or direction), attention (vigilance, divided attention, and alertness), and short-term memory (working memory span, pattern recognition, and pattern matching).

Only in the temporal training group did performance on any of the cognitive tests significantly improve after training — on the sequencing tests, divided attention, matching complex patterns, and working memory span. These positive effects still remained after 18 months (vigilance was also higher at the end of training, but this improvement wasn’t maintained).

This is, of course, only a small pilot study. I hope we will see a larger study, and one that compares this form of training against other computer training programs. It would also be good to see some broader cognitive tests — ones that are less connected to the temporal training. But I imagine that, as I’ve discussed before, an effective training program will include more than one type of training. This may well be an important component of such a program.

Reference: 

[3075] Szelag, E., & Skolimowska J.
(2012).  Cognitive function in elderly can be ameliorated by training in temporal information processing.
Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. 30(5), 419 - 434.

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When multitasking is more of a problem

October, 2012

Multitasking is significantly worse if your tasks use the same modality. Instant messaging while doing another visual-motor task reduces performance more than talking on the phone.

I’ve reported, often, on the evidence that multitasking is a problem, something we’re not really designed to do well (with the exception of a few fortunate individuals), and that the problem is rooted in our extremely limited working memory capacity. I’ve also talked about how ‘working memory’ is a bit of a misnomer, given that we probably have several ‘working memories’, for different modalities.

It follows from that, that tasks that use different working memories should be easier to do at the same time than tasks that use the same working memory. A new study confirms that multitasking is more difficult if you are trying to use the same working memory modules for both tasks.

In the study, 32 students carried out a visual pattern-matching task on a computer while giving directions to another person either via instant messaging (same modalities — vision and motor) or online voice chat (different modality — hearing).

While both simultaneous tasks significantly worsened performance on the pattern-matching task, communicating by IM (same modality) led to a 50% drop in visual pattern-matching performance (from a mean of 11 correct responses to a mean of 5), compared to only a 30% drop in the voice condition (mean of 7).

The underlying reason for the reductions in performance seems to be in the effect on eye movement: the number and duration of eye fixations was reduced in both dual-task conditions, and more so in the IM condition.

Note that this is apparently at odds with general perception. According to one study, IM is perceived to be less disruptive than the phone. Moreover, in the current study, participants felt they performed better in the IM condition (although this palpably wasn’t true). This feeling may reflect the greater sense of personal control in instant messaging compared to chat. It may also reflect an illusion of efficiency generated by using the visual channel — because we are so strongly practiced in using vision, we may find visual tasks more effortless than tasks using other modalities. (I should note that most people, regardless of the secondary task, felt they did better than they had! But those in the IM condition were more deluded than those in the chat condition.)

The finding also explains why texting is particularly dangerous when driving — both rely heavily on the same modalities.

All this is consistent with the idea that there are different working memory resources which can operate in parallel, but share one particular resource which manages the other resources.

The idea of ‘threaded cognition’ — of maintaining several goal threads and strategically allocating resources as needed — opens up the idea that multitasking is not all bad. In recent years, we have focused on multitasking as a problem. This has been a very necessary emphasis, given that its downsides were unappreciated. But although multitasking has its problems, it may be that there are trade-offs that come from the interaction between the tasks being carried out.

In other words, rather than condemning multitasking, we need to learn its parameters. This study offers one approach.

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