Working With Distractions
Many of us are working from home to practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Home contains distractions, including family members, chores, social media, and many other possible activities. All of us want to be the best worker/parent/person we can be, but managing different tasks and switching seamlessly between them is difficult. The ability you’re testing when managing and switching tasks is known as cognitive flexibility. There are two types of cognitive flexibility: task-switching and cognitive shifting. Task-switching is the ability to unconsciously shift attention between one task and another. Imagine that your kid interrupts you when you’re in the middle of writing something and asks if you can make them a snack. You’re able to go to the kitchen and get them something to eat. Another related executive function is cognitive shifting, which involves a conscious change in attention. Imagine that you set a time to stop work and then you intentionally stop working and thinking about work to go play a game with your kid.
Studying cognitive flexibility
One of the techniques used to study effective task-switching is a behavioral task called the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task . Basically, a researcher presents a participant with a bunch of stimulus cards that have different colors, shapes and quantities of shapes. The participant is asked to match the cards, but isn’t given instruction on how to match- they are just told whether the match is correct or not. The rule on what to match shifts throughout the session, and the participant has to follow what category is relevant. This task allows researchers insight on a person’s ability to strategically plan, use feedback, and modulate behavior to achieve a goal.
Another task that measures the ability to ignore irrelevant components and shift attention is the Stroop test . The Stroop test usually involves 3 different stimuli: names of colors written in black ink or the color written, different colored squares, and names of colors printed in an ink that is different than the color named. The participant must either read the word regardless of the color of the font, or identify the color regardless of the text or shape. Researchers can compare reaction time between congruent (“red” has red ink) and incongruent (“red” has yellow ink) stimuli, and look at how the brain manages interference, and investigate what parts of the brain are needed for doing this task-switching and using selective attention.
Numerous studies have shown the involvement of prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, basal ganglia, and posterior parietal cortex in cognitive flexibility in these tasks among others [3,4,5]. Some of these regions have abnormal connectivity or size in people with cognitive flexibility problems (including people with schizophrenia, and in some studies, people with autism spectrum disorders)[6,7].
Increasing your cognitive flexibility
When you multitask, you risk making mistakes and may take more time to complete each task. However, there is some limited evidence that practice dealing with multiple tasks and task switching can improve your multitasking effectiveness. Your brain can handle switching tasks rapidly, but if you can, it’s probably best to focus on one thing at a time to reduce your own stress . Some people have tried interventions to minimize task-switching and subsequently reducing stress, such as mindfulness meditation [11,12]. However, if there are unavoidable distractions, cut yourself a break. It’s clear that effectiveness at work goes down and stress goes up when you have to rapidly shift attention, so lowering your expectations during this time is perfectly fine.
- Seattle Times,
- Monchi, O., Petrides, M., Petre, V., Worsley, K. & Dagher, A. Wisconsin Card Sorting Revisited: Distinct Neural Circuits Participating in Different Stages of the Task Identified by Event-Related Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. J. Neurosci. 21, 7733–7741 (2001).
- Stroop, J. R. Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. J. Exp. Psychol. 18, 643–662 (1935).
- Yehene, E., Meiran, N. & Soroker, N. Basal ganglia play a unique role in task switching within the frontal-subcortical circuits: evidence from patients with focal lesions. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 20, 1079–1093 (2008).
- Leber, A. B., Turk-Browne, N. B. & Chun, M. M. Neural predictors of moment-to-moment fluctuations in cognitive flexibility. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 105, 13592–13597 (2008).
- Worringer, B. et al. Common and distinct neural correlates of dual-tasking and task-switching: a meta-analytic review and a neuro-cognitive processing model of human multitasking. Brain Struct. Funct. 224, 1845–1869 (2019).
- Morice, R. & Delahunty, A. Frontal/Executive Impairments in Schizophrenia. Schizophr. Bull. 22, 125–137 (1996).
- Geurts, H. M., Corbett, B. & Solomon, M. The paradox of cognitive flexibility in autism. Trends Cogn. Sci. 13, 74–82 (2009).
- The Myth Of Multitasking. NPR.org https://www.npr.org/2013/05/10/182861382/the-myth-of-multitasking.
- Dux, P. E. et al. Training improves multitasking performance by increasing the speed of information processing in human prefrontal cortex. Neuron 63, 127–138 (2009).
- Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching. https://www.fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching.
- Gorman, T. E. & Green, C. S. Short-term mindfulness intervention reduces the negative attentional effects associated with heavy media multitasking. Sci. Rep. 6, 1–7 (2016).
- 12. Moore, A. & Malinowski, P. Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Conscious. Cogn. 18, 176–186 (2009).