Control as subjective experience

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Chapter 8 endnote 2, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Your control network, you may recall, constantly shapes the course of your predictions and prediction error to help select among multiple actions, whether you experience yourself as in control or not. [...] The experience of being in control is often a function of affect and belief and is largely unrelated to the actual amount of control you have...

Chapter 11 endnote 13 & 14, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

[note 13] ...your experience of being in control is just that ​— ​an experience.


[note 14] The law defines deliberate choice ​— ​free will ​— ​as whether you feel in control of your thoughts and actions.

Your control network is always actively engaged, helping your brain decide among different predictions or different actions, even when you have no awareness of control.[1][2]

For a number of years, controlled processing has been defined by the subjective experience of control. This idea began with William James (1890),[3] and it was elaborated on by Hermann von Helmholtz (1910/1925),[4] and later by the psychologist John Bargh (1994),[5] who clearly described four elements of this subjective experience:

  • Awareness (you are able to self-reflect on your processing attempts)
  • Intention (you experience yourself as the agent of your own behavior)
  • Effort (you experience processing as effortful and less efficient)
  • Control (you are motivated to counteract your automatic behaviors).

Automatic processing is the absence of these experiences.[6][3][4][5][7][8] Emotions do not necessarily interfere with your ability to make choices any more than cognitions do—the difference is that in emotion, you do not experience yourself as causing your own actions (you fail to have the illusion of free will).

The scientific evidence shows that control can sometimes occur with a feeling of conscious deliberation and choice, but it need not.[9][1][2]

Network details

The control network not only involves the cerebral cortex, but also key subcortical regions, such as the striatum (part of the basal ganglia). The ventral striatum, for example, is part of the control network and part of the interoceptive network. This region is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine was once thought to be the neurotransmitter responsible for drug addiction, and many still consider it to be the neurotransmitter responsible for “reward.” Accumulating evidence suggests that during prediction, dopamine helps to the brain to execute an action, but it can also help the brain to encode information about the current circumstances and store it for use as future predictions (i.e., for learning and memory).


Notes on the Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Badre, David. 2008. "Cognitive control, hierarchy, and the rostro-caudal organization of the frontal lobes." Trends in Cognitive Science 12 (5): 193-200.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jeon, Hyeon-Ae, and Angela D. Friederici. 2015. "Degree of automaticity and the prefrontal cortex." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19 (5): 244-250.
  3. 3.0 3.1 James, William. (1890) 2007. The Principles of Psychology. Vol. 1. New York: Dover.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Helmholtz, H. von. 1925 (1910). Treatise on Psychological Optics, volume 3. Menasha, WI: Banta.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bargh, John A. 1994. "The four horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, efficiency, intention, and control in social cognition." Handbook of social cognition, 2nd edition, edited by R. S. Wyer Jr. and T. K. Srull, 1–40. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  6. Posner, Michael I., and Gregory J. DiGirolamo. 2000. "Cognitive neuroscience: origins and promise." Psychological Bulletin 126 (6): 873-889.
  7. Bargh, John A., and Melissa J. Ferguson. 2000. "Beyond behaviorism: on the automaticity of higher mental processes." Psychological Bulletin 126 (6): 925-945.
  8. Luck, S. J., and Stevem A. Hillyard. 2000. "The operation of selective attention at multiple stages of processing: Evidence from human and monkey electrophysiology." In The New Cognitive Neurosciences, edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, 687-700. Bradford.
  9. Barrett, Lisa Feldman, Michele M. Tugade, and Randall W. Engle. 2004. "Individual differences in working memory capacity and dual-process theories of the mind." Psychological Bulletin 130 (4): 553-573.