A characteristic feature of human cognition is our ability to ‘multi-task’—performing two or more tasks in parallel—particularly when one task is well learned. How the brain supports this capacity remains poorly understood. Most past studies have focussed on identifying the areas of the brain—typically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—that are required to navigate information-processing bottlenecks. In contrast, we take a systems neuroscience approach to test the hypothesis that the capacity to conduct effective parallel processing relies on a distributed architecture that interconnects the cerebral cortex with the cerebellum. The latter structure contains over half of the neurons in the adult human brain and is well suited to support the fast, effective, dynamic sequences required to perform tasks relatively automatically. By delegating stereotyped within-task computations to the cerebellum, the cerebral cortex can be freed up to focus on the more challenging aspects of performing the tasks in parallel. To test this hypothesis, we analysed task-based fMRI data from 50 participants who performed a task in which they either balanced an avatar on a screen (balance), performed serial-7 subtractions (calculation) or performed both in parallel (dual task). Using a set of approaches that include dimensionality reduction, structure-function coupling, and time-varying functional connectivity, we provide robust evidence in support of our hypothesis. We conclude that distributed interactions between the cerebral cortex and cerebellum are crucially involved in parallel processing in the human brain.

How does the brain support the performance of multiple complex tasks, in parallel? The distributed architecture of the cerebellum is ideally placed to interact with the cerebral cortex, creating complex channels for segregated information processing that afford the execution of parallel tasks. Here, we apply time-resolved functional connectivity analyses to functional MRI data collected while individuals performed a dual task that required either balancing, calculating, or the two in tandem. We found robust evidence for distinct patterns of cortico-cerebellar connectivity as a function of task performance.

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Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Handling Editor: Lucina Uddin

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