Trying to learn two different things one after another is challenging. Almost always some of the information from the first topic or task gets lost. Why does this happen? A new study suggests the problem occurs when the two information-sets interact, and demonstrates that disrupting that interaction prevents interference. (The study is a little complicated, but bear with me, or skip to the bottom for my conclusions.)
In the study, young adults learned two memory tasks back-to-back: a list of words, and a finger-tapping motor skills task. Immediately afterwards, they received either sham stimulation or real transcranial magnetic stimulation to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or the primary motor cortex. Twelve hours later the same day, they were re-tested.
As expected from previous research, word recall (being the first-learned task) declined in the control condition (sham stimulation), and this decline correlated with initial skill in the motor task. That is, the better they were at the second task, the more they forgot from the first task. This same pattern occurred among those whose motor cortex had been stimulated. However, there was no significant decrease in word recall for those who had received TMS to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Learning of the motor skill didn't differ between the three groups, indicating that this effect wasn't due to a disruption of the second task. Rather, it seems that the two tasks were interacting, and TMS to the DLPFC disrupted that interaction. This hypothesis was supported when the motor learning task was replaced by a motor performance task, which shouldn’t interfere with the word-learning task (the motor performance task was almost identical to the motor learning task except that it didn’t have a repeating sequence that could be learned). In this situation, TMS to the DLPFC produced a decrease in word recall (as it did in the other conditions, and as it would after a word-learning task without any other task following).
In the second set of experiments, the order of the motor and word tasks was reversed. Similar results occurred, with this time stimulation to the motor cortex being the effective intervention. In this case, there was a significant increase in motor skill on re-testing — which is what normally happens when a motor skill is learned on its own, without interference from another task (see my blog post on Mempowered for more on this). The word-learning task was then replaced with a vowel-counting task, which produced a non-significant trend toward a decrease in motor skill learning when TMS was applied to the motor cortex.
The effect of TMS depends on the activity in the region at the time of application. In this case, TMS was applied to the primary motor cortex and the DLPFC in the right hemisphere, because the right hemisphere is thought to be involved in integrating different types of information. The timing of the stimulation was critical: not during learning, and long before testing. The timing was designed to maximize any effects on interference between the two tasks.
The effect in this case mimics that of sleep — sleeping between tasks reduces interference between them. It’s suggested that both TMS and sleep reduce interference by reducing the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the mediotemporal lobe (of which the hippocampus is a part).
Here’s the problem: we're consolidating one set of memories while encoding another. So, we can do both at the same time, but as with any multitasking, one task is going to be done better than the other. Unsurprisingly, encoding appears to have priority over consolidation.
So something needs to regulate the activity of these two concurrent processes. Maybe something looks for commonalities between two actions occurring at the same time — this is, after all, what we’re programmed to do: we link things that occur together in space and time. So why shouldn’t that occur at this level too? Something’s just happened, and now something else is happening, and chances are they’re connected. So something in our brain works on that.
If the two events/sets of information are connected, that’s a good thing. If they’re not, we get interference, and loss of data.
So when we apply TMS to the prefrontal cortex, that integrating processor is perhaps disrupted.
The situation may be a little different where the motor task is followed by the word-list, because motor skill consolidation (during wakefulness at least) may not depend on the hippocampus (although declarative encoding does). However, the primary motor cortex may act as a bridge between motor skills and declarative memories (think of how we gesture when we explain something), and so it may this region that provides a place where the two types of information can interact (and thus interfere with each other).
In other words, the important thing appears to be whether consolidation of the first task occurs in a region where the two sets of information can interact. If it does, and assuming you don’t want the two information-sets to interact, then you want to disrupt that interaction.
Applying TMS is not, of course, a practical strategy for most of us! But the findings do suggest an approach to reducing interference. Sleep is one way, and even brief 20-minute naps have been shown to help learning. An intriguing speculation (I just throw this out) is that meditation might act similarly (rather like a sorbet between courses, clearing the palate).
Failing a way to disrupt the interaction, you might take this as a warning that it’s best to give your brain time to consolidate one lot of information before embarking on an unrelated set — even if it's in what appears to be a completely unrelated domain. This is particularly so as we get older, because consolidation appears to take longer as we age. For children, on the other hand, this is not such a worry. (See my blog post on Mempowered for more on this.)