How the brain’s ‘workspace’ allows multitasking

July 28, 2011

Cognitive neuroscientist Robert H. Logie at the University of Edinburgh has found that a “workspace” in the brain allows us to do something while other functions operate in the background or to apply ourselves to a single task involving more than one function, contrary to the “controlled attention” model.

“We have a range of different capacities, each with its own function, and they operate at the same time” when we perform a task or think about something, says Logie. Within this “multiple-component framework,” working memory capacity (the ability to keep track of ongoing mental processes and moment-to-moment changes in the immediate environment) is “the sum of the capacities of all these different functions.”

Logie used imaging data to demonstrate that if you ask people to do one sort of task, you get one brain pattern, and if you ask them to do another, you get another pattern. He said that if you make the same task harder (for example, remember word lists faster), “you see increased activation in the same area.” Complicate it by adding words to the sequence, and different networks fire.

The multiple-component model holds great practical promise, says Logie. If you see general impairment in aging or after brain damage, you can give only generalized support. However, where there is decline or impairment in specific cognitive functions, you can still exercise the remaining robust functions.  This can help people live richer, more independent lives, says Logie.

Ref.: Robert H. Logie, The functional organisation and the capacity limits of working memory, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Association for Psychological Science [link]