Recent findings on how interruptions affect working memory

Written by Bianca Zickerick

Phone calls, messages, or emails: At work, we are interrupted and distracted several times a day. This is especially challenging when working from home due to Covid-19. In a recent study, we focused on how such interferences affect the performance of working memory. We could show that it is particularly difficult to get back to the primary task after an interruption. This was not the case with non-relevant distractions.

In everyday life, we have to plan our actions. This applies to cooking as well as to work-related tasks. Such action plans are temporarily stored in working memory. However, the working memory system does not only hold a limited amount of information but can also link it to long-term memory content. This enables us to successfully execute an action. But what happens when we get interrupted or distracted before executing an action plan? In a recently published study, we investigated this question by focusing on the effects of interferences on the retrieval of action plans in working memory.

24 people participated in the experiment in which we presented a random sequence of numbers. The participants had to remember the present number to decide whether the previous number was odd or even by pressing a button (see photo). This action plan was randomly disrupted by blue and orange numbers that either had to be ignored (distraction) or responded to (interruption).

The participants had to decide whether the preceding number was odd or even by pressing a key. Additionally, numbers in orange and blue were presented. These numbers had to either be ignored or again required an odd/even decision. Afterwards, the main task should be continued. ISI: Time between two numbers (inter-stimulus-interval). Photo: Zickerick/IfADo

The participants had to decide whether the preceding number was odd or even by pressing a button. Additionally, numbers in orange and blue were presented. These numbers had to either be ignored or again required an odd/even decision. Afterwards, the main task should be continued. ISI: inter-stimulus-interval. Photo: Zickerick/IfADo

After each interference, the primary task continued. Thus, the participants had to remember which number was shown before the interference. During the experiment, we measured brain activity using eelectroencephalography.

Working memory withstands distractions better than interruptions

We could show that interruptions and distractions had different effects on working memory performance. After an interruption, the participants made significantly more mistakes than without an interruption. This was not the case when they were distracted.

The deterioration in behavior after an interruption was also reflected in brain activity: The amplitude of the P3b component was significantly reduced when the participants were interrupted. The component is related to the retrieval and selection of task-relevant information. Notably, the P3b component was already reduced shortly before the participants responded to the primary task. This indicates that it was difficult to retrieve the action plan from working memory after the interruption, probably as the interruption itself had already consumed cognitive resources that were then lacking for the primary task.

Interestingly, participants responded much faster after a distraction than without a distraction. This could be due to the fact that the distraction was not disrupting enough in our experimental design. Consequently, the participants had more time to prepare for resuming their primary task again. We will now continue to conduct fundamental research on how interruptions affect working memory which will also be the main focus of my PhD project.

Plan for more preparation time

How can we now handle interruptions in everyday life situations? Although we do basic research, our current and previous findings can support the following everyday tips: Having additional time to prepare for resuming your primary task can be helpful. Particularly, notes and checklists can help you find your way back to the actual task after an interruption more easily. Moreover, it is helpful to finish a task first (at least partially) and then to focus on the interruption. That means: First read the paragraph to its end and then answer the question of your colleague.

Publication (Open Access):

Zickerick, B., Kobald, S. O., Thönes, S., Küper, K., Wascher, E., Schneider, D.: Don’t stop me now: Hampered retrieval of action plans following interruptions. Psychophysiology, 2020. doi: 10.1111/psy.13725

Written by

Bianca Zickerick

Bianca Zickerick is a PhD student in the ergonomics department at IfADo. She graduated in Psychology and Philosophy and finished her master's degree in Ageing Societies. Both interests are now combined in her research at IfADo where she investigates the influence of interruptions on working memory performance and the interaction with age.

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