Niels Taatgen

HomeResearchOverview Skill Acquisition MULTITASK Time perception Learning from instructionsTransfer: PRIMsPublicationsPersonal



This project is funded by an European Research Council starting grant.


Note: for the latest on my multitasking research, check out: "Towards safe and productive human multitasking".

People have the remarkable ability to do many things at the same time. The things that people do at the same time often interact with each other. This can lead to interference, where the performance on individual tasks suffers. But in other cases, interference is minimal or absent, and there are even cases where there is a positive effect of multitasking on performance (see my blog for details).

Our research focusses on two questions: when does multitasking lead to interference, and why are people multitasking in the first place?

Driving a car while using a navigation device, from Salvucci, Taatgen & Kushleyeva (2006).

When does multitasking lead to interference?

To predict interference in multitasking, Dario Salvucci and I have developed a theory called threaded cognition. It predict that multitasking interference occurs if two tasks need the same brain module at the same time. Brain modules can be vision, or motor, but also long-term memory, working memory or the perception of time. The theory is implemented within the ACT-R cognitive architecture to be able to make precise predictions.

One of these "cognitive bottlenecks" that is of particular importance is working memory. Strong interference is produced by two tasks are done concurrently that both require working memory. Our neuroimaging study has shown that the locus of this interference is in the parietal cortex.

If you want to used threaded cognition in your own models, you can download it with examples from the threaded cognition webpage.

Why do people multitask?

To understand human multitasking, and how to best support people in their multitasking, it is necessary to know why people multitask in the first place. According to threaded cognition, multitasking is productive if the new tasks uses different brain areas than the task you are already doing, but do people use this as a criterion for their choices? To investigate this, we conduct experiments in which subjects can make choices in their multitasking, and we are interested in what prompts their choices, and whether these choices are rational on a local and on a global level.

Project Team


Jelmer Borst, Postdoc


Ioanna Katidioti, PhD student

Menno Nijboer, PhD student

Trudy Buwalda, PhD student

Stefan Wierda, Postdoc


Project publications

Katidioti, I. , Borst, J. P. , & Taatgen, N. A. (2014). What Happens When We Switch Tasks: Pupil Dilation in Multitasking. Journal of experimental psychology: Applied, 20(4), 380-396.

Nijboer, M. , Borst, J. , van Rijn, H. , & Taatgen, N. (2014). Single-task fMRI overlap predicts concurrent multitasking interference. NeuroImage, 100, 60-74.

Taatgen, N.A. (in press). Between architecture and model: Strategies for cognitive control. Biologically Inspired Cognitive Architectures. (link)

Katidioti, I. & Taatgen, N.A. (2014). Choice in multitasking: How delays in the primary task turn a rational into an irrational multitasker. Human Factors, 56(4), 728-736. (pdf)

Nijboer, M., Taatgen, N.A., Brands, A., Borst, J.P. & van Rijn, H. (2013). Decision making in concurrent multitasking: Do people adapt to task interference? PLoS ONE 8(11): e79583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079583. (link)

Taatgen, N.A. (2013). The nature and transfer of cognitive skills. Psychological Review, 120(3), 439-471. (pdf)

Taatgen, N.A. (2013). Diminishing return in transfer: A PRIM model of the Frensch (1991) arithmetic experiment. Proceedings of the 12th international conference on cognitive modeling. (pdf)

Nijboer, M., Borst, J.P., van Rijn, H., & Taatgen, N.A. (2013). Predicting Interference in Concurrent Multitasking. Proceedings of the 12th international conference on cognitive modeling. (pdf)

Borst, J.P., Nijboer, M., Taatgen, N.A., & Anderson, J.R. (2013) A data-driven mapping of five ACT-R modules on the brain. Proceedings of the 12th international conference on cognitive modeling. (pdf)


Key references

Borst, J., Taatgen, N.A. & van Rijn, H. (2011). Using a Symbolic Process Model as input for Model-Based fMRI Analysis: Locating the Neural Correlates of Problem State Replacements. NeuroImage, 58, 137-147. (pdf)

Borst, J., Taatgen, N.A. & van Rijn, H. (2010). The problem state: A cognitive bottleneck in multitasking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(2), 363-382. (pdf)

Salvucci, D.D., & Taatgen, N.A. (2011). The multitasking mind. New York: Oxford University Press

Salvucci, D. D., & Taatgen, N. A. (2008). Threaded Cognition: An Integrated Theory of Concurrent Multitasking. Psychological Review, 115(1), 101-130. (pdf)

Taatgen, N.A. (2007). The minimal control principle. In Gray W. (Ed.), Integrated Models of Cognitive Systems (pp. 368-379). New York: Oxford University Press.(pdf)

Anderson, J.R., Taatgen, N.A. & Byrne, M.D. (2005). Learning to Achieve Perfect Time Sharing: Architectural Implications of Hazeltine, Teague, & Ivry (2002). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 31(4), 749-761. (pdf)