Ever wonder why you may have trouble learning to text on a touch screen phone after using a phone with a keypad for many years? Or having to drive in a country where you have to stay on the left side of the road instead of the right?

A recent study by researchers at the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Psychology and published in the research journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience indicates that learning to complete a task after the rules have been changed is tough on your brain, resulting in mistakes made often and repeatedly. This is because your brain has to work at doing two things—suppress the old rules and concentrate on the new rules—at the same time.

Using the example of driving on the opposite side of the road, lead researcher and MSU graduate student Hans Schroder explains, “There’s so much conflict in your brain that when you make a mistake like forgetting to turn on your blinker you don’t even realize it and make the same mistake again. What you learned initially is hard to overcome when rules change.”

The study had participants performing a particular task on the computer according to a given set of rules, and then, after 50 trials, performing the same task using a different set of rules. Researchers measured the participants’ brain activity levels as they completed the tasks assigned to them. They were concerned to note that participants made more repeated errors after the rules had changed, which indicates that they weren’t able to learn from their mistakes, and their brain activity levels suggested that they were less able to register the errors they made. Getting the task done right also proved to require more brain activity after the rules changed.

This was contrary to what the researchers had thought would happen. “We expected they were going to get better at the task over time,” said Schroder. “But after the rules changed they were slower and less accurate throughout the task and couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.”

When applied to the workplace, it’s easy to see how this problem can lead to a lot of frustration, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression, says co-researcher and assistant professor of psychology Jason Moser, who also works as the director of MSU’s Clinical Psychology Lab. “These findings and our past research suggest that when you have multiple things to juggle in your mind—essentially, when you are multitasking—you are more likely to mess up. It takes effort and practice for you to be more aware of the mistakes you are missing and stay focused.”

Still, having the rules change on you is something you can’t always avoid, especially now, when companies are pushing for innovation and development. So just being aware of the difficulty your brain has when you have to do things a different way may help you—you’ll be able to remind yourself to pay more attention and be more focused on your task.


(Photo by Maria Beliakova via sxc.hu)

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