How to Multi-task with Ease: Train the Body and Mind as One

By Sandra Clarke

June 27, 2018

Person walking on the street while talking on their mobile phone

Doing two things at once like walking and talking is more complicated than one might think, but researchers in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences are finding ways to help us get better at multi-tasking.

Prof. Lori Ann Vallis and PhD student Timothy Worden have found that young adults are better at performing combined physical and mental tasks after they have trained for those two tasks together. Because trying to concentrate on two things at once can lead to some unfortunate consequences (for example, you may be more likely to trip over something in your path while your mind is distracted trying to remember what is on your shopping list), the researchers were keen to determine how biomechanics and cognitive training could be combined to best improve multi-tasking performance.

“We loved the idea of integrating biomechanics with cognitive attention, rather than concentrating on improving only one,” says Vallis. “We were excited to see if it would work.”

With insights in both neuroscience and biomechanics from colleagues Naseem Al-Aidroos of the University of Guelph and Allan Adkin of Brock University, Vallis and Worden set out on two different experiments to try to reduce dual-task interference, which is the difficulty that arises when trying to perform two tasks at the same time. The dual-task in this case involved walking over a moving obstacle while also performing what’s known as a Stroop test, where participants must identify whether a recorded voice is saying the words “low” or “high” using a low or high pitch, which can be trickier than it seems.

In the first experiment, participants completed an integrated walking and cognitive-based training program before attempting both of them together in the dual-task test. Participants ended up walking over the obstacle more carefully compared to those who did not undergo any training, suggesting that this type of direct training can help individuals perform better in very specific multi-tasking situations.

Next, they set out to determine whether those same benefits could be seen when participants were trained for a task that was less related.  In this case participants were asked to perform a computer-based car racing game in lieu of the walking-based training. If it worked, it would support the idea of a general training program that could benefit more diverse daily multi-tasking situations. Unfortunately, the computer based training resulted in improved dual-task performance on some measures but it did not result in a more cautious walking strategy in a subsequent dual-task test, indicating that preparing for dual-task success may require a training program that closely mimics the intended tasks.

While the results were not quite what Vallis and her colleagues expected, they’ve paved the way for future investigations for the lab. “These results have given us the opportunity to get even more creative with our research,” says Vallis. “The timing may be right to incorporate items such as virtual or augmented reality to our experimental designs.”

With multi-tasking becoming the new norm in our society, and elderly people especially vulnerable to the difficulties associated with performing multiple tasks at once, developing effective dual-task training protocols has enormous promise to benefit real-life situations.  

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


Read the full article the Journal of Motor Behaviour.

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