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Building tasks from verbal instructions: An EEG study on practice trial exposure and task structure complexity during novel sequences of behavior

Roberts, G., Jones, T.W., Davis, E. A., Ly, T.T. and Anderson, M. (2014) Building tasks from verbal instructions: An EEG study on practice trial exposure and task structure complexity during novel sequences of behavior. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 14 (4). pp. 1356-1374.

Link to Published Version: http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/s13415-014-0276-9
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Abstract

Configuring the mind to perform a novel task is an effortful process and one that is related to differences in general intelligence. Previous research has suggested that when participants are given instructions for a future task, representations of the rules contained in the instructions can influence subsequent behavior, even when the rules are not necessary to perform the upcoming task. One hypothesis for the continued activation of rule representations suggests that the practice trials participants perform before the experimental trials may instantiate the unnecessary task rules into participants' mental model of the task (i.e., the task space). To test this hypothesis, EEGs were recorded as participants (N = 66) completed a multirule task designed to contrast the effects of increasing task structure complexity and practice trial exposure. The results showed that, as was predicted, performance is significantly poorer when more task rules are specified in the task instructions. Practice trials with the extra rule did not affect task performance, indicating that an unacted verbal instruction is sufficient to incorporate the rule into participants' mental model of the task. The EEG results showed that instruction complexity was linked to a phasic increase in frontal theta synchronization but reduced posterior alpha and beta desynchronization. These changes in synchronization occurred during a time period of low intertrial phase coherence and suggest that participants were "checking the task rules" amidst a trial. This transient neural activity may reflect compensatory mechanisms for dealing with increased mind-wandering that is more likely to occur in complex tasks.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Psychology and Exercise Science
Publisher: Springer
Copyright: Psychonomic Society
Notes: Published online 6 May 2014
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/22678
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