Neuroscientist David Badre reveals why we're so bad at multitasking © Getty Images

Neuroscientist David Badre reveals why we’re so bad at multitasking

Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with David Badre – listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.

Amy Barrett: So, let’s start at the very beginning. What’s involved in forming a thought?

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David Badre: Forming a thought is sort of the core problem, that’s a big mystery in human psychology and neuroscience. This book is kind of asking the next question; how do we go from a thought that we have, that we form. Some idea about what we want to do, some task we want to take, some goal that we have.

How do we translate that into the actions we need to do to actually achieve that? And that’s something that we kind of take for granted. We do it at lots of times during the course of our day.

And these can be big goals. You know, you want to go to university or you want to start a business or something. But it can also be just simple everyday goals like going and getting a cup of coffee, which is the example I use in the book.

All of that requires making a link between this idea you have, a goal you have, and the actual actions. It turns out that’s not a trivial thing. The brain requires a special class of mechanisms to do that. And those are called cognitive control mechanisms by scientists. And that’s really what the book is about, because it affects so many aspects of our lives. How we do that translation between our thoughts and how we behave.

AB: I mean, like the example you just said of going to get a cup of coffee, that for me feels like it’s something I don’t have to process. You know, I think to myself, I want my first coffee of the morning and I go and do it. How much kind of cognitive control is involved in just that one thing?

DB: Well, I mean, even though it’s something we do every day – I mean, like in my house, for instance, it’s kind of my job. I’m the one who makes the coffee every morning. And so it’s something I do every day, it is a very well-learnt activity, no doubt about it.

In those kind of activities, we don’t have to pay attention to every little thing we do. So they don’t require a lot of direct control. But that being said, on any given day, it’s probably slightly different than the day before and the day after. We don’t live in well-controlled environments like the kind that scientists like me like to create in the lab where we can control everything. Rather, our environment is complex, dynamic and variable.

On a given morning when I’m making my coffee, my kids can come running in and interrupt me. Right? Maybe someone put the mugs or the cream in the wrong spot. I have to go find it. You know, any number of things happen. Things are in slightly different positions even.

And what’s kind of remarkable is that despite all of that, those little changes, our brain accommodates that very easily and is able to assess where we are with respect to our broader goal. It doesn’t stop us midstream when something isn’t the same as it’s always been. We’re able to readjust on the fly.

And that requires control. And this system that we have is important to lots of things we do, but it is also important to our to our independence, our ability to take care of ourselves every day. That’s one reason why scientists are so concerned with this function, is that when people lose this function due to a brain disease or to accidents, they lose independence in their lives because even simple tasks that they were able to do before becomes very hard for them.

So even though we take these mechanisms for granted, they are very real and they’re really important parts of the course of our everyday life.

AB: So if something could cause us to lose this function, does that mean that there’s a specific part in the brain that corresponds to this ability?

DB: Yeah, that’s a great question, too. So, cognitive control in general is associated with the front part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But one shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s one function or it’s just one thing.

There is actually multiple networks and systems in the brain, and mechanisms, that give rise to control. And as a result, it’s something that is affected in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric disorders. You can also have two patients who will show problems with cognitive control, an inability to control themselves, but for different underlying reasons. The mechanism underlying those things actually is different, even though they’re showing the same behaviour.

This is one reason why it’s been such a complicated problem to address for scientists.

AB: And it’s kind of strange to hear it referred to as ‘control’, because it’s something that it feels like it’s completely out of our control, that it’s just subconscious how we turn thought into an action. Why is it given that term?

DB: Sometimes it’s also referred to as executive function, I should say, and it’s probably widely known as executive function. The reason why I think cognitive control is a better term, and it’s a term at least I prefer, the one that is used by a lot of cognitive neuroscientists like me. It’s in reference to sort of the engineering idea of control.

Control systems are like your thermostat, for example. So it has a set point, a particular temperature, and then as there are perturbations in the world – things get colder, things get warmer – the thermostat will detect that difference and then will enact a process typically of a heating or cooling process to move that temperature back towards that set point.

So, by analogy, thinking of the way we control our behaviour in terms of control systems, we have a set point. We have a goal. We have context to rule some desired course of action. And what we want to do is assemble actions that get us there, but also be monitoring as we go for how we’re doing, so that we can make adjustments as we need.

In other words, we can get from any start-point to any desired out-point if it’s a well-controlled system that we want to get to.

So, as a description of the function, that’s why people call it control. They call it cognitive control because it’s doing so based on some internal representation you have – a goal or a plan as opposed to being controlled by our environment, which we are a lot as well. External stimuli, things that we process through the senses also control our behaviour, sometimes, particularly for habits and strongly associated actions.

AB: So is there an example of a time you can give, when something like that might change what we’re doing?

DB: One example, which I raise in the book is when your cell phone buzzes. That’s a case where you have a strong association of wanting to look at it because that buzz means that there might be a text or some other kind of notification from social media or something.

Thousands of prior events where that buzz was followed by some interesting thing when we looked at our phone have now associated those actions very strongly. And so sometimes when our phone buzzes, in spite of ourselves, in some situations where we shouldn’t be doing so – in a meeting or while we’re driving our car – we’ll check the phone. Because that input has nothing to do with our plan, we weren’t planning to check our phone at that moment, but that input was so strong that we decided to check.

AB: So what happens when we’re multitasking, how do we do those two things at once?

DB: Well, the first thing I should say is that we’re really bad at multitasking. It’s not something we do well. By multitasking I mean any time we’re trying to do multiple things at the same time.

So to say ‘how do we do it?’ is sort of to say ‘how do we do poorly at it?’ to some extent. But when we’re trying to do multiple things at once, we’re trying to orchestrate more than one action through the same system. And because of the way we think about our actions, the way we are able to assemble our actions, relies sometimes on the same components it causes interference.

So, just as an example, if I tried to say two words at the same time, like literally just at the same time, I couldn’t say two words at once. My mouth can’t do that. And so that’s a common resource, my mouth. In the task of saying those words. And I can only do one of those words at a time. So, I have to do one and then I do the other, if I’m trying to multitask at that level.

But obviously there’s a lot of similar resources like that, happening before you get to my mouth. So in my brain, there’s lots and lots of common or overlapping resources that your brain is using. And when two tasks draw in the same one, you’re going to have a bottleneck, interference, and it makes it hard to do it. So that’s the problem of multitasking.

So in terms of coming back to this question about cues and things in the world. Often when we do tasks, we associate things in the world with those tasks, and those also kind of elicit – even if we’re trying not to do a task right now, I’m trying to work on, say, writing something but I have my smartphone nearby and it buzzes or I see it even – it’s going to elicit another task, like checking social media or doing something else.

So either I’m going to be compelled by that and go and do it, which would distract me from what I’m doing, or I’m going to have to go through some mental work to keep that at bay. But nonetheless, it’s going to cause some interference and that’s going to disrupt what I what I’m doing right now.

Multitasking is something that’s not even just about trying to do multiple tasks at the same time, it’s about putting yourself in an environment where you have cues to multiple tasks that will cause that competition and interference.

Anybody who’s been a parent with children at home during this pandemic knows that it is very hard to be productive when you’re multitasking and you have strong, attentionally demanding cues to other tasks in your world. It’s hard to be productive.

AB: We’ve talked about things that we do every day, or things that we’ve learnt – to associate the buzzing with stimuli in social media, texts from friends. How do we then, if that’s kind of a fundamental aspect of cognitive control, how do we achieve goals which we haven’t before? So, how do we know which actions will lead us to a goal that hasn’t happened before?

DB: That’s really the fundamental thing that that we get from our control system. I mean, lots of animal species do complicated things.

I give the example in the book about the spider building a web. It’s a wonderfully complex and sophisticated behaviour. And it looks for all the world like the spider has a goal of building this web because, you know, they can adapt the web based on like the environment they’re in, or the kinds of prey that are in the area.

It’s a very sophisticated hierarchical process of putting in these special scaffolding strands and then capture threads and they edit them and stuff like that. And the web itself is bigger than the field of view of the spider. So how can it build something without having a mental representation of the thing it wants to build?

But it turns out you can actually simulate a spider building a web without having any such go. Right, with just having a list of rules that are based on the last couple of threads the spider touched. It’ll simulate spider web building behaviour very well, or the last couple threads.

The reason for that is that there have been many, many millions of years of evolution that have programmed that set of rules for a spider to build a web. So it doesn’t require this notion of conceiving of a goal and then assembling the behaviour.

Humans, on the other hand, we certainly have some behaviours like that. We actually could build a web, in some sense, but it would be done very differently. We’d be imagining what the web should look like, and then we would come up with a bunch of behaviours to do it. That generative aspect of human behaviour – that we can do novel behaviours we’ve never done before, that evolution hasn’t specified for us – is really the key thing that control gets us.

And to your question then, like, how do we do it? Well, that means that we have to have basic building blocks that we can assemble action out of. So, this is what we scientists call compositional action. In other words, we can break down our behaviours into little components. Think of it like a library of little actions. And then we can assemble and reassemble that library into all kinds of new actions based on the things we want to achieve.

And that’s actually where things like multitasking costs come from, though, because if I’ve got this common library of little actions I can use, then any two tasks I’m trying to do are likely going to pull some of those similar actions. And anytime that happens, they’re going to be competing.

It’s like having a big highway system. A big road system. So the bigger my city gets, I’m going to need some arteries that everybody goes through and I’m going to get traffic when they all try to go through those arteries. It’s the same thing in a big complex human brain. It’s sort of like multitasking cost is the price we pay for having this wonderfully generative ability to do almost anything we can conceive of.

AB: And is that unique to humans?

DB: Well, you know, it’s hard – you could get into a debate about whether this is uniquely human. I do think no other species can do this on the scale that humans can do. I certainly think that there are components you need, like cognitive control and the ability to engage in counterfactual and detailed future thought. You have to be able to conceive of that future where you’re building that spider web or what have you.

There are versions of that in lots of species. And they rely on the same mechanisms in the brain in those species as well. It’s just not at the same scale that humans have them and can do these things.

So to some degree it is unique. Another unique thing is that humans have language, right. And we are able to communicate. We don’t just have goals, we can communicate our goals to other people. And through cultural transmission, through language and other forms of that, that expands the range of things we can do, which then, of course, we can leverage because we have this control system that allows us to assemble the actions you need to do it.

And so those things combine, I think, to produce the scale which… This kind of human intelligence is very unique. And it’s something that we haven’t also really been able to reproduce artificially. There’s no current artificial intelligence that rivals that aspect of human behaviour, the generative aspect of human behaviour.

AB: So at the moment the AI is just kind of working like the spider, just following the rules?

DB: Exactly, I mean, I think, you know, AIs are able to specialise in playing Go or playing chess and things like that, and they will beat human players on those games. But they aren’t very robust to small changes in the environment.

If you change aspects of that game of chess or Go, you change the rules, that AI is going to have a hard time. With a human player, you could say, today we’re going to do this, we’re going to add this new crazy rule to this game and they’ll be able to accommodate it and do it immediately. Not to mention the fact that human player will also be able to go and have like a brunch with their friends and get on Zoom and talk to people. And do, you know, a seemingly endless number of other tasks really well, which that AI could never do.

AB: Is this something that we can do from the moment we’re born? From the moment we’re able to speak, or what point to kind of humans develop this system of control?

DB: Well, it’s definitely the case that our capacity for control undergoes development over the course of our lives. So, we see that there’s a development and capacity for control that grows over the course of early childhood and into early adolescence and then kind of a refinement period over the adolescent years to reach sort of mature adult level. So, it’s definitely dynamic.

I do think, though, it’s important [to note that] sometimes there is a misconception, there are confusions. People think there is no control, that kids can’t control themselves at all, or there’s no cognitive control among children. And that’s not really the case.

I should point out that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain I mentioned earlier that is important for control, also shows this prolonged developmental time course. So it reaches its kind of mature stability at much later in life, in the mid teens to 20s. So it mirrors that time course. But again, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the frontal lobe is like sort of just not doing anything until it comes online suddenly at adulthood and we can control ourselves.

You can look, for instance, in the case of my kids. When they went to an in-person school thing, they had to learn a whole bunch of new protocols about mask wearing and sitting at the right distances and the way you can walk in the hallways at the school and so forth. And they were able to do that. Again, the only reason you can do that, you can take this arbitrary rule that you were given – not arbitrary, there’s a reason you do it – but it’s a new rule that you have to implement and [the only reason you can] do that is because you have a control system.

What is changing over childhood, though, is that the capacity for control is growing because, through experience with the world, our brain learns the policies it needs in order to coordinate all of its systems, to be able to draw those links between what we know and how we behave.

That takes data. It takes a lot of living in the world for the brain to understand what to do. So in other words, control is developing, not in spite of the environment around it, but rather because of the environment around it. And that’s a really important aspect, when we think about what’s important for education and for the environment of children with their control system in mind. I think the fact that it’s a driving force for how we learn to control ourselves, is very important.

AB: And does it keep kind of going up as we get more data, so as we age, does it continue or do we at some point in our ageing and near the end of our life, what happens to our cognitive control then?

DB: Well, the control stabilises roughly by the time we’re in our in our 20s, early 20s, but it continues to change over the course of our lives.

Though for the most part, what we see is that our capacity for control starts to decline as we get older and in fact declines sufficiently in very old age. So that for many people, they end up losing independence because they aren’t able to sort of carry out the kinds of tasks you need for everyday life, due to the loss of control, even apart from other physical and financial reasons why older adults lose independence.

And so I think it’s a topic of a lot of interest, as we have a growing ageing population, to try to understand how we can maybe help or intervene to allow adults to maintain their independence for longer. There’s also a question of why different individuals show different time courses of those changes as well over time.

AB: What do you mean by different?

DB: So as much as control declines as we get older, and it actually declines pretty linearly from about age 30 or 35, unfortunately, but we don’t really start to notice it until much later in life. It’s a slow decline.

But, you see there’s a much steeper change in the 70s and 80s primarily. And yet that’s the sort of on average, there’s a wide individual variability in that, with some people who show more and some people show less.

And one thing that’s interesting is that older adults, in addition to showing this general decline, they also lean on control for a lot of their kind of compensation for other things that are happening in their world.  It’s actually a source, to some degree, of strength as we age.

For instance, by planning and structuring their environment through control systems, older adults are able to better cope with some of the changes that they experience in their lives.

And so one important question people have is, why is it that some people seem to to show that they’re sort of resilient to these changes and they and they can lean on that control system for longer, relative to other people? That’s actually a major area of research right now, because obviously, if we had an answer to that, we might be able to help people address these issues as they go.

But I should say that, one reason why control does show these changes as we get older, it could be because of changes that happen in the brain. There’s definitely changes in these systems, including the frontal lobe, that make them less able to carry out their functions as we get older, even in healthy ageing.

However, it’s also the case that if you think about early development as being us sort of getting collecting data, trying to optimise our control system. We’re basically using that first 10 to 20 years of our lives as a way of sort of setting up a model for how the rest of our lives are going to go, like what the what the world is going to be like to control ourselves. And you can just imagine, as given the entropy of the world. That the world becomes less and less and less like the world of our childhood as we get older.

And so the applicability of that library of control policies that we’ve built becomes less and less too. So it puts demands more and more on our control system as we age. And that’s part of why it’s harder to engage in that kind of control.

AB: Are there certain kind of illnesses, diseases that could affect this system?

DB: There definitely are. And I think as I mentioned earlier, actually there’s involvement of cognitive control or executive function is, as a neuropsychologist would call it, in most major psychiatric or neurological diseases and disorders, it gets affected in some way.

I think that speaks to the fact that it’s not one single system, part of the brain or something. Rather, it’s emergent from the interactions of lots of different systems in which any one of which, if it gets affected, will generally affect our control. So one of the major research initiatives right now, particularly when looking at mental health, is to try to ask what are the underlying computational components, the underlying parts of this system? Can we kind of identify certain functions?

And one example I talk about a lot in the book is, for instance, the notion of a memory gate. So that function would have a lot of different symptoms that would arise from it.

And one thing we could do in mental health is to try to redefine in a trans diagnostic way what’s happening. If we understood, you know, across different types of patients and even create new classes within certain types of patients, if we knew what the underlying cause was in the control system.

So, there’s a big effort to try to understand things like cognitive control at that level, so we can we can better both assess and treat patients.

AB: You mentioned memory. How is the kind of memory involved in this process? I mean, I sort of didn’t even think that we’d have to remember things in order to do them. But, of course, we do.

DB: Yeah. So, actually specifically working memory, which is kind of our short-term, you know, we’re holding in mind right now and they sort of capture our consciousness that this moment is actually really crucial for control.

So if we go back to the example we talked about earlier, which was the phone buzzing in your car. Right. So if you’re if you’re driving and your phone buzzes, you’re going to have that urge because of that strong association to check your phone. But if you know anything about the statistics on distracted driving, you know it’s a very dangerous thing to try to text while you drive. It’s something you shouldn’t do.

So even though the more common thing to do when your phone buzzes is to check it – in this environment, driving, you need to not do that and you do something else, maybe pay attention to the road instead. But you need to do something, anything but check your phone. In order to do that, you need to hold in your working memory the state you’re in, the context you’re in right now.

When the context you’re in is driving, that is something that could be available through the senses. But it’s not always like that.

For instance, say someone told us, you know, when you’re in this room, so-and-so is busy so don’t go and interrupt them. Go talk to these other people. You have to kind of hold that in mind, in order to guide your behaviour. No one’s going to keep telling you that as you go around, or else you’re going to commit a party foul.

So the in the case of the car, your brain has to hold that that important contextual information that you’re driving somewhere. It is held in your working memory. And then when that phone buzzes, you need to be able to use that information to pick a different action. That’s the essence of control. Doing that requires control over that working memory.

What’s the information that’s important to hold right now? So the fact that you’re driving is important to hold the memory and maybe not the cute dog you saw on the side of the road or something as you were driving. Right.

So you have to make a decision on what goes into memory, and you also have to make a decision about when that information should be used as a control signal. And at the moment when the phone buzzes and you have this urge to answer it, that’s when you need to enact that control.

If you miss those moments, if you fail to update memory with the right information, or if you fail to act on the information at the right moment, that’s where we make errors. That’s where we have slips of action that we all commit. But hopefully not too routinely. Things like, you know, you’re driving on the way to your friend’s house, but the first three quarters of the way is the same as you go to your office, so you end up at your office without realising.

You didn’t check at the right moment. Even though you’re holding your task, your goal in mind, you didn’t actually use that in order to guide your behaviour at the right moments. You missed that check.

So the ability to control memory is really important. And the metaphor we use for that is a gate. It’s basically when the gate is open, we can update memory, we can allow information that’s in memory to influence what we’re doing. When the gate is closed, we can keep irrelevant things out of our memory. And we also kind of hold on to stuff and we don’t use it at the wrong moment to try to drive our behaviour.

AB: Can these things be wrong?

DB: Oh, surely we do. The mechanisms in the brain that actually enact these gates, at least the framework I describe in the book is that they’re enacted by interactions between the prefrontal cortex, which is maintaining this information, and a set of structures called the basal ganglia that together enact this gate by interacting with one another.

And the basal ganglia is heavily affected by a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which we know is related to things like predictions of future positive outcomes and so forth. Why this is potentially important is it’s a way for the brain to learn, to effectively predict what information is useful to hold in memory. It can learn through these dynamics, ‘this is something important to hold in memory’. So it’s trying to make a prediction about this being a valuable thing to hold in mind or make a prediction that this is something that I should allow to influence my behaviour.

Now, that prediction, if that prediction is wrong, well, you’re going to end up with a slip or a problem, but hopefully the brain can learn from that. So the next time that doesn’t happen.

In fact, it’s that kind of learning that we think is happening throughout that early childhood period too, where you’re starting to lay down better and better and better policies, better predictions about, if given this type of context, what should I be holding in memory and when should I let it act?

And so whenever we’re trying to kind of figure out a new task, we’re doing something for the first time. We’re slow at it because we’re trying to work out all those dynamics. We’re trying to figure out the right dynamics of when to update memory and how to move it around.

And that’s really at the heart of efficient performance.

AB: Can we use this understanding to get better ourselves, can we use it to kind of get things done faster or more effectively?

DB: I think so. One way it helps us, is to be a little bit more forgiving of ourselves, in terms of how we behave. Once you sort of understand these systems, you sort of see, ‘why was it so hard for me to do that case of multitasking and so forth?’ Well, there’s a good reason for that to some degree.

But I think more practically, one thing you can do is you can structure your environment to help aid your control system to some degree. And one example is multitasking. There’s no cure for multitasking – the only way to not have a multitasking cost is just don’t multitask.

But if you have to – sometimes you can’t avoid it – then there are things you can try to do. For example, trying to find particular settings, be they a place or a time of day. You know, any anything you can think of, even a type of music. That you use, that you associate with particular kinds of tasks to help you maintain state on those tasks.

The better your the environment separates multiple tasks, the less you’re going to have sort of crosstalk interference between them potentially. Again, it’s not a cure for this. But it can certainly help.

Other examples; you can structure your environment to do those kind of reminders so you don’t have to remind yourself. Psychologists call these forcing functions. These are, for instance, you know, I put my keys on the door. These days I hang my mask on the door so I don’t forget it as I’m leaving the house. So I can’t turn that door knob unless I’ve got that mask in my hand. I don’t have to use the context of ‘right now I’m living through this pandemic and therefore, if I’m going to go to a place where I’m going to be indoors, going to be around other people, I need to bring a mask with me.’

You can structure your environment to kind of help your control system. In fact, looked at that way, it’s interesting because you’re using your control system to help itself. So the more you know about it’s easier to come up with those strategies that work for you.

AB: But these are some kind of very short term goals. Is there anything that can help us with longer term goals?

DB: That’s a great question. The first thing I think I should point out is there’s a bit of a distinction between a very long-term goal and a short-term goal, in terms of the problem involved. So there are two issues.

One is that as you’re doing a task in time, the brain has to in some way abstract over time. This is called temporal abstraction.

So same task has to exist in the time moving forward. And you’re sort of collapsing across all the differences in time and you’re imagining that task. So for short term goals that’s very realistic. You can characterise me as making coffee for some, you know, reasonably hopefully short period of time where I’m engaged in that task.

But if you’re thinking about, like, preparing to go to college or university, that’s a very long time-frame. And it’s very unlikely that you would characterise everything you’re doing over the whole of your early part of your life as ‘getting ready to go to university’. And so the kinds of mechanisms you need are going to be different to those two situations.

The second big difference is that the bigger goals are typically more open-ended. In other words, you can’t trace the whole path of ‘what are the different actions I need to take that get me all the way from the day I went into my first classroom as a child, all the way to the day I walked into my first classroom at the university.’

It’s just impossible. That would be intractable.

So in that case, you’re going to probably have a series of reassessments over time of ‘where am I with respect to that broader goal?’ And then ‘how can I how can I plan accordingly?’

And I should say that with patients who suffer problems with executive function or cognitive control, it’s those open-ended problems that caused the biggest challenge for those patients. Some of them will be fine at simple tasks, they won’t have an issue at all. It is complex open-ended problems where they run into issues.

So, can I offer any tips in terms of how to do better? That’s hard to say. There is not really a clear recommendation I could make that’s supported by data other than to say that I think we recognise that these open problems are hard and they require lots of reassessments.

So one thing that’s helpful is to find ways of doing that, monitoring of those checks with respect to that. That’s why probably many people like to emphasise things like personal development plans and other kinds of goal-setting, because it’s a way to make explicit, when you have to do that replanning step over and over again, it makes very explicit sort of where you are. And that’s probably a good strategy for the system to take.

But, yeah, you’re asking a great question. If we really understood, like, the full process that got us to university, then we’d be much further along than we are today.

AB: But these things we’ve talked about are kind of individual actions. And so how does this help humanity as a whole solve problems together?

DB: Well, so this is a good question, because I think addresses a really deep point about why we study things like cognitive control.

A lot of the problems we face, that the brain faces, the challenges that it faces in order to engage in general action as a control system are going to be faced by any system that wants to do general action, including things like societies.

So I give the example in the book of climate change, which is something that a crisis that we’re facing as a species, as a world, actually. The whole world’s facing this.

And so one question is, what do we do about it?

It’s an interesting problem because a lot of the focus, at least in the US, has been on people who don’t accept the science behind climate change and deny either human involvement or that it’s happening at all.

That’s surely a problem and it’s an obstacle to any kind of progress. But there’s another question which is also of interest to activists in this area, is why is it that there are actually a large number of people who do believe in climate change, who accept the science, but yet don’t seem to be enacting any changes in their own behaviour as a result of that of that knowledge? So why would that happen?

And what’s interesting about it, is it’s a case at the level of the society of this knowledge-action-dissociation that I mentioned earlier. The idea that it’s not enough to just have a goal. You need processes that can and will assemble the right actions to take to do it.

So I think studying something like cognitive control allows us to understand first a little more about why it is that people might have goals that they don’t actually follow through on, that they aren’t able to enact at the individual level. And it also raises these dilemmas that the brain faces, that are being faced by our society, too.

One example is this is the so-called stability, flexibility dilemma. So, things that you do to build stability into a system of control make it harder to be flexible when you need to be and vice versa – if you’re too flexible, it’s also hard to sustain.

So those kinds of dilemmas facing society as well. And I think a better understanding of that might help us understand how we can do things like enact the changes we want, like, for example, combating climate change.

AB: Obviously, this year for most of us, the last year has been very, very different. Um, do you think that there’s anything that you’ve seen happening that will have a lasting impact on the way we act or the way we process?

DB: That’s a fantastic question. I do think that there are going to be some changes. We understand more about a little bit more about how we take information that is important at a societal level, and how we can change sort of as a group in response to it.

I can’t think of a crisis that was as worldwide as this that caused this massive behaviour change as we saw. It was within weeks, you know, people of whole societies are changing the way we work, the way we get food, the way we do everything.

So I think we’ve learnt a lot both about our capacity of that, but also how fatiguing it is and how challenging it is to keep track of and to do.

I think one thing that you’re seeing is things like, they call it pandemic fatigue, where compliance goes down over time. And it’s raised interesting new questions about why that is. Why do we see changes in compliance again for something we know we should be doing, but yet people seem like, you know, just less willing to do it, just put in the mental energy to do it.

And I think it’s really down to a lot of different causes, obviously. But one of the interesting ones from my perspective, is the change in the way that mental effort, mental investment, affects our ability to do things that we know are good for us to some degree. Which is, I think, a problem that transcends the pandemic.

In terms of like will we, I think, change the way we behave, work and at least speaking as a scientist, do science? I think it’s broadened us in a lot of ways.

I think because we’ve built into our behaviours now the ability to talk to other people over Zoom really regularly or whatever your favourite medium is. And I’m seeing much more commonly now: ‘oh, you know, we’re having a lab meeting on this topic. We thought you might want to if you’re available at this time, would you like to drop in?’

You know, I think we’ve since we’ve now dealt with all the barriers on that, I can see that easily continuing into the future, which will connect us a lot more in certain ways, I think could be positive.


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