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OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to assess performance and cognitive states during cognitive work in the presence of physical work and in natural settings. BACKGROUND: Authors of previous studies have examined the interaction between cognitive and physical work, finding performance decrements in working memory. Neuroimaging has revealed increases and decreases in prefrontal oxygenated hemoglobin during the interaction of cognitive and physical work. The effect of environment on cognitive-physical dual tasking has not been previously considered. METHOD: Thirteen participants were monitored with wireless functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) as they performed an auditory 1-back task while sitting, walking indoors, and walking outdoors. RESULTS: Relative to sitting and walking indoors, auditory working memory performance declined when participants were walking outdoors. Sitting during the auditory 1-back task increased oxygenated hemoglobin and decreased deoxygenated hemoglobin in bilateral prefrontal cortex. Walking reduced the total hemoglobin available to bilateral prefrontal cortex. An increase in environmental complexity reduced oxygenated hemoglobin and increased deoxygenated hemoglobin in bilateral prefrontal cortex. CONCLUSION: Wireless fNIRS is capable of monitoring cognitive states in naturalistic environments. Selective attention and physical work compete with executive processing. During executive processing loading of selective attention and physical work results in deactivation of bilateral prefrontal cortex and degraded working memory performance, indicating that physical work and concomitant selective attention may supersede executive processing in the distribution of mental resources. APPLICATION: This research informs decision-making procedures in work where working memory, physical activity, and attention interact. Where working memory is paramount, precautions should be taken to eliminate competition from physical work and selective attention.

author list (cited authors)
McKendrick, R., Mehta, R., Ayaz, H., Scheldrup, M., & Parasuraman, R.
publication date
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  • Mind–body InteractionMind–body InteractionAdultAttentionExecutive FunctionHemodynamicsHumansMemory, Short-TermMotor ActivityPrefrontal CortexPsychomotor PerformanceSpectroscopy, Near-InfraredMind-body InteractionBiomechanicsAnthropometryWork PhysiologyNear-infrared Spectroscopy (nirs)Attentional ProcessesCognitionWorking MemoryNeuroergonomics