New EEG evaluations show how attentional focusing works after interruptions in working memory

Nov 29, 2021

Interruptions at work often lead to a deterioration in performance in the original task. This performance deficit usually manifests itself in a delay in resuming the actual task. With the help of EEG measurements, researchers at the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund (IfADo) have now analysed working memory processes when switching between different tasks in more detail. They were able to show that interruptions lead to more errors, longer reaction times and more inaccurate working memory content.

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The deterioration due to interruption can be attributed to the fact that demanding interruptions in particular disrupt human attention control processes. This makes it more difficult to return to the main task after an interruption. This connection could be shown in the EEG by means of oscillatory effects in the theta and alpha frequency range, which speak for a deficit in the control of attentional processes after interruptions.

Resumption of the main task takes time

In the study, a working memory task was interrupted by either a demanding or a less demanding arithmetic task. The study participants made more errors on the main task during high-demand interruptions and took longer to refocus on it after the interruption. Since the interruption task had to be completed in a certain amount of time, the task was made even more difficult.

The researchers also draw the conclusion from the EEG data and the deterioration in performance after a demanding interruption that the subjects already had to redirect their attention back to the main task while working on the interruption. It can therefore be deduced from the results that sufficient time should be available for processing an interruption task in order to facilitate the return to the main task.

Original publication:

Zickerick, B., Rösner, M., Sabo, M., & Schneider, D. (2021). How to refocus attention on working memory representations following interruptions – Evidence from frontal theta and posterior alpha oscillations. European Journal of Neuroscience

Scientific Contact: 
Dr. Bianca Zickerick
Research Associate Ergonomics
Phone: +49 231 1084-264

Marlene Rösner
Research Associate Ergonomics
Phone: +49 231 1084-325

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