Rationalizing constraints on the capacity for cognitive control

Sebastian Musslick, Jonathan D. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


Humans are remarkably limited in: (i) how many control-dependent tasks they can execute simultaneously, and (ii) how intensely they can focus on a single task. These limitations are universal assumptions of most theories of cognition. Yet, a rationale for why humans are subject to these constraints remains elusive. This feature review draws on recent insights from psychology, neuroscience, and machine learning, to suggest that constraints on cognitive control may result from a rational adaptation to fundamental, computational dilemmas in neural architectures. The reviewed literature implies that limitations in multitasking may result from a trade-off between learning efficacy and processing efficiency and that limitations in the intensity of commitment to a single task may reflect a trade-off between cognitive stability and flexibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)757-775
Number of pages19
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • information processing limitations
  • multitasking
  • task switching
  • visual attention
  • working memory


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