Reduced motor preparation during dual-task performance: evidence from startle
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Previous studies have used a secondary probe reaction time (RT) task to assess attentional demands of a primary task. The current study used a startling acoustic stimulus (SAS) in a probe RT paradigm to test the hypothesis that attentional resources would be directly related to limitations in response preparation. Participants performed an easy or difficult version of a continuous primary task that was either primarily motor in nature (pursuit tracking) or cognitive (counting backward). Concurrently, participants responded to an auditory cue as fast as possible by performing a wrist extension secondary movement. On selected trials, the auditory cue was replaced with a SAS (120 dB), which is thought to involuntarily trigger a prepared response and thus bypass any response initiation bottleneck that may be present when trying to perform two movements. Although startle trials were performed at a shorter latency, both non-startle and startle probe trials resulted in a delayed RT, as compared to single-task trials, consistent with reduced preparation of the secondary task. In addition, analysis of SAS trial RT when a startle indicator was present versus absent provided evidence that the secondary task was at a lowered state of preparation when engaged in the cognitive primary task as compared to a motor primary task, suggesting a facilitative effect on preparatory activation when both the primary and secondary tasks are motoric in nature.
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