Abstract

When two tasks are performed simultaneously, performance often deteriorates, with concomitant increases in reaction time and error rate. Three potential neurophysiological mechanisms behind this deterioration in performance have been considered here: (i) dual-task performance requires additional cognitive operations and activation of cortical areas in addition to those active during single-task performance; (ii) two tasks interfere if they require activation of the same part of cortex; and (iii) cross-modal inhibition causes interference between two tasks involving stimuli from different sensory modalities. Positron emission tomography was used to measure regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) during performance of an auditory working memory (WM) task, a visual WM task, both WM tasks (dual task) and a control condition. Compared to the control condition, the auditory and visual WM tasks activated sensory-specific areas in the superior temporal gyrus and occipital pole respectively. Both WM tasks also activated overlapping parts of cortex in the dorsolateral prefrontal, inferior parietal and cingulate cortex. There was no separate cortical area which was activated only in the dual task, and thus no area which could be associated with any dual task specific cognitive process such as task-coordination or divided attention. Decrease in rCBF in one WM task did not overlap with the areas of rCBF increase in the other WM task. However, an inhibitory mechanism could not be ruled out, since the rCBF increase in sensory specific areas was smaller in the dual-task condition than in the single-task conditions. The cortical activity underlying WM was to a large extent organized in a non-sensory specific, or non-parallel, way, and the results are consistent with the hypothesis that concurrent tasks interfere with each other if they demand activation of the same part of cortex.