Cognitive control and its various meanings

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Chapter 6 endnote 17, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

This tinkering [by the control network] ultimately helps your brain simultaneously to regulate your body budget, produce a stable perception, and launch an action. [...] In psychology, we have many names for describing this “tinkering,” such as keeping a goal in mind, focusing attention, weeding out distractions, selecting the best action, and so on, and we refer to them as different processes, such as working memory, selective attention, and so on.

There are many different scientific theories of control. Several review articles are a helpful introduction.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

To summarize, "control" means:

  • Keeping a goal in mind; called selective attention or working memory; ensuring that neural activity is maintained for the most task-relevant representation (i.e., the one with the best match to the situation, based on past experience, which is also referred to as the representation with the highest prior probability). To a neuron, “attention” means influencing its firing pattern.
  • Focusing on signal and ignoring noise; modulating the firing of some populations of neurons to keep information accessible and active to influence processing elsewhere in the brain. Less task-relevant representations are inhibited or are allowed to degrade.[9]
  • Selecting the best response and sending this information to the motor network so that the actions directed by the representation that best fits both past experience and the situation at hand (i.e., with the highest posterior probability) controls behavior. Control means minimizing conflict between different possible courses of actions, and tries to ensure that you can respond flexibly as the situation changes.

For many years, scientists assumed that a different region of the brain performed each of these abilities, but decades of brain research, including careful experiments and meta-analyses, have shown that the control network performs all of these functions.[10][11][12][10]

Sometimes reduced control can be a good thing.[13]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Abrahamse, Elger, Senne Braem, Wim Notebaert, and Tom Verguts. 2016. "Grounding cognitive control in associative learning." Psychological Bulletin 142 (7): 693-728.
  2. Botvinick, Matthew M., and Jonathan D. Cohen. 2014. "The computational and neural basis of cognitive control: charted territory and new frontiers." Cognitive Science 38 (6): 1249-1285.
  3. Botvinick, Matthew, and Todd Braver. 2015. "Motivation and cognitive control: from behavior to neural mechanism." Annual Review of Psychology 66: 83-113.
  4. Power, Jonathan D., and Steven E. Petersen. 2013. "Control-related systems in the human brain." Current Opinion in Neurobiology 23 (2): 223-228.
  5. Bhandari, Apoorva, and David Badre. 2016. "A Nimble Working Memory." Neuron 91 (3): 503-505.
  6. Petersen, Steven E., and Michael I. Posner. 2012. "The attention system of the human brain: 20 years after." Annual Review of Neuroscience 35: 73-89.
  7. Miller, Earl K., and Jonathan D. Cohen. 2001. "An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function." Annual Review of Neuroscience 24 (1): 167-202.
  8. Botvinick, Matthew M., Todd S. Braver, Deanna M. Barch, Cameron S. Carter, and Jonathan D. Cohen. 2001. "Conflict monitoring and cognitive control." Psychological Review 108 (3): 624–652
  9. The interoceptive network has an extra, special way of directing sensory sampling to eliminate prediction error: it can prevent sensory input from ever making it to cortex to begin with. (body-budgeting regions can gate thalamic reticular nucleus which inhibits sensory inputs to the cortex. For example, Zikopoulos, Basilis, and Helen Barbas. 2006. "Prefrontal projections to the thalamic reticular nucleus form a unique circuit for attentional mechanisms." Journal of Neuroscience 26 (28): 7348-7361.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Niendam, Tara A., Angela R. Laird, Kimberly L. Ray, Y. Monica Dean, David C. Glahn, and Cameron S. Carter. 2012. "Meta-analytic evidence for a superordinate cognitive control network subserving diverse executive functions." Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 12 (2): 241-268.
  11. Fedorenko, Evelina, John Duncan, and Nancy Kanwisher. 2013. "Broad domain generality in focal regions of frontal and parietal cortex." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (41): 16616-16621.
  12. Fox et al., 2005 [full reference to be provided]
  13. Amer, Tarek, Karen L. Campbell, and Lynn Hasher. 2016. "Cognitive Control As a Double-Edged Sword." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20 (12): 905-915