Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Training and Transfer Effects in Task Switching

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Training and Transfer Effects in Task Switching

Article excerpt

Performance on task switching, a paradigm commonly used to measure executive function, has been shown to improve with practice. However, no study has tested whether these benefits are specific to the tasks learned or are transferable to new situations. We report evidence of transferable improvement in a cued, randomly switching paradigm as measured by mixing cost, but we report no consistent improvement for switch cost. Improvement in mixing costs arises from a relative reduction in time to perform both switch and nonswitch trials that immediately follow switch trials, implicating the ability to recover from unexpected switches as the source of improvement. These results add to a growing number of studies demonstrating generalizable improvement with training on executive processing.

Task switching is an increasingly popular method used in studies of cognitive control. In the typical task- switching paradigm, a participant must switch between two simple tasks, such as adding × to a number on one trial and then subtracting × on the next. When participants alternate between two tasks, their reaction times (RTs) are slower than when repeating a single task.

Although the task-switching paradigm was originally developed by Jersild (1927), its use has only recently become widespread, due to a growing interest in executive function. Executive functions are supervisory processes that allow for top-down control of action and are essential for goal-directed behavior. Task switching has been proposed as a candidate executive function along with inhibition, the maintenance and updating of information in working memory, and the ability to perform two tasks at the same time (Miyake et al., 2000). Moreover, task switching has been used to study executive processing across psychology and related fields, including cognitive development (Cepeda, Kramer, & Gonzalez de Sather, 2001), cognitive aging (Kramer, Hahn, & Gopher, 1999; Kray & Lindenberger, 2000, Mayr, 2001), and brain imaging (Braver, Reynolds, & Donaldson, 2003; Sohn, Ursu, Anderson, Stenger, & Carter, 2000), and in studies of a wide array of clinical disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Cepeda, Cepeda, & Kramer, 2000), Parkinson's disease (Meiran, Friedman, & Yehene, 2004), and frontal lobe injury (Keele & Rafal, 2000).

Given the importance of executive functions and the effects that impairment of these functions have on numerous populations, there is growing interest in determining whether performance on executive control can be improved with practice (Verhaeghen, Cerella, & Basak, 2004) and whether it can show transfer to unpracticed situations. There is some evidence not only that the efficiency of executive functions, such as inhibition (Dowsett & Livesey, 2000), working memory (Klingberg, Forssberg, & Westerberg, 2002), and dual-task performance (Bherer et al., 2005; Kramer, Larish, & Strayer, 1995), improves with practice, but also that this improvement can transfer to novel contexts. There are demonstrable practice-related improvements in switching performance (Jersild, 1927; Kramer et al., 1999; Kray & Eppinger, 2006; Kray & Lindenberger, 2000; Mayr & Kliegl, 2003; Meiran, 1996). However, there has been no direct test of whether the observed performance improvements constitute a transferable improvement in the ability to switch tasks more efficiently or are simply an improvement in the practiced task. In the present study, we investigated the extent to which improved task-switching performance with practice can transfer to a new task-switching situation. We employed a pretest-posttest design in which participants were measured on their ability to switch between two tasks, both before and after practice on other switching tasks.


Cognitive control has been proposed as being necessary to task switching on a variety of levels. …

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