Someone whose been driving for 20 years, let’s say, in the United States and somehow ends up driving a car in the UK will be in a lot of trouble. Going from right side driving to left side driving, or vice versa, will bewilder just about anyone, and if you’ve gone through such an experience maybe you can relate to the fact that although you realize the rules of the game have changed, you’ll still be prone to mistakes like signaling the wrong way. Sure adapting takes time, but it takes longer and at a more frustrating energy cost than learning from scratch – a fact attested by a recent new study by Michigan State University psychology researchers.
“There’s so much conflict in your brain,” said Schroder, who continues on the same foreign car lane analogy “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.”
To test the theory, the scientists invited study participants to a computerized task which involved recognizing the middle letter either in “NNMNN” or “MMNMM.” For “M”, participants simply had to press a button on the left, while for “N” on the right. After 50 trials or so, the commands were reversed. The scientists found that the volunteers made repeated mistakes, and, moreover, didn’t learn from them. In addition, a cap measuring brain activity showed they were less aware of their errors. Also, when the participants did indeed respond correctly, brain activity showed showed intense connections suggesting it was put to harder work and consuming more energy.
“We expected they were going to get better at the task over time,” said Schroder, a graduate student in MSU’s Department of Psychology. “But after the rules changed they were slower and less accurate throughout the task and couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.”
“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,” said Jason Moser, assistant professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. “It takes effort and practice for you to be more aware of the mistakes you are missing and stay focused.”