New Paper: Multitasking/Multiplexing

Multitasking versus multiplexing: Toward a normative account of limitations in the simultaneous execution of control-demanding behaviors

S. F. Feng,  M. Schwemmer,  S. J. Gershman,  J. D. Cohen

Why is it that behaviors that rely on control, so striking in their diversity and flexibility, are also subject to such striking limitations?

Typically, people cannot engage in more than a few—and usually only a single—control-demanding task at a time. This limitation was a defining element in the earliest conceptualizations of controlled processing; it remains one of the most widely accepted axioms of cognitive psychology, and is even the basis for some laws (e.g., against the use of mobile devices while driving).  Remarkably, however, the source of this limitation is still not understood.

Here, we examine one potential source of this limitation, in terms of a trade-off between the flexibility and efficiency of representation (“multiplexing”) and the simultaneous engagement of different processing pathways (“multitasking”).  We show that even a modest amount of multiplexing rapidly introduces cross-talk among processing pathways, thereby constraining the number that can be productively engaged at once.  We propose that, given the large number of advantages of efficient coding, the human brain has favored this over the capacity for multitasking of control-demanding processes.


Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience

January 2014


 Multitasking vs. Multiplexing Paper PDF