More than Attentional Tuning - Investigating the Mechanisms Underlying Practice Gains and Preparation in Task Switching

Front Psychol. 2017 May 10;8:682. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00682. eCollection 2017.


In task switching, participants perform trials of task repetitions (i.e., the same task is executed in consecutive trials) and task switches (i.e., different tasks are executed in consecutive trials) and the longer reaction times in switch trials in comparison to these times in repetition trials are referred to as switch costs. These costs are reduced by lengthening of an interval following a cue that indicates the upcoming task; this effect demonstrated effective task preparation. To investigate the role of task switching practice for these preparation effects and task switch costs, we applied a task switching paradigm, involving two digit classification tasks, in six successive practice sessions and varied the length of the preparation interval. To further examine practice-related processing alterations on preparation, particularly concerning the focusing of visual attention and control of response competition, we added an Eriksen flanker task in the initial and the final session. Unlike the two digit tasks, which were always validly cued, the Eriksen flanker task occurred randomly after a cue that indicated one of the other two tasks (i.e., invalid task cuing). The results showed that, in the initial session, task switch costs for the digit tasks were reduced after a long preparation interval but this reduction disappeared after practice. This finding is consistent with the assumption of practice-related enhancement of preparation efficiency concerning non-perceptual task processes. Flanker interference was larger after preparation for a task repetition than for a task switch and (regarding error rates) larger in the final than in the initial session. Possible mechanisms underlying these attentional modulations evoked by task-sequence-dependent preparation and by task switching practice are discussed.

Keywords: executive functions; preparation; switch costs; task switching; training.