Ever wonder how your brain knows exactly what to do to achieve the goal of acquiring a cup of coffee, even if you’ve just stumbled out of bed? You need to take a number of steps in the correct order, including putting in the filter, adding the water, adding the coffee and turning on the machine. From our conscious perspective, this process appears rather ordinary, maybe even dull. However, the great mystery of brain science is that all of your behavior can be understood as an incredibly complex dance of electro-chemical patterns flowing through a hundred billion neurons (specialized cells which send messages to each other as well as your muscles). We have very little idea how it all works, but a diverse range of research labs at IU are doing their best to figure it out.
My own research takes place in the realm of cognitive neuroscience, a field that sits at the intersection between psychology and neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience is concerned with understanding the structures and processes in your brain that allow you to think, act, and understand the world. Typically, we start by identifying a process or ability we’d like to study, such as the ability to hold a goal in mind while acting to accomplish it. You make use of this ability when completing multi-step tasks such as making coffee in the example above. However, you can also experience this ability falter, like when you forget what you were looking for as soon as you enter the room to be searched! We can then ask which brain regions are involved in the ability to hold a goal in mind, and what role each region plays. To answer these questions, we need to be able to watch how brain activity changes in different areas while different processes and abilities are being used.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, pictured above, allows us to do just this. However, we can’t have people make coffee or search rooms inside of a brain scanner, so if we want to study something like goal maintenance we have to create a simple computer task which requires that ability. The participant performs the task while inside the brain scanner, allowing us to see when various brain regions become more or less active, like in the image below. For instance, we might ask which regions show greater activity while a goal is being held in mind.
In the Cognitive Control Lab at IU, we study the brain processes underlying cognitive control, also known as executive functions. ‘Executive’ here refers to something akin to an executive at a corporation, monitoring and directing lower level processes in order to coordinate the behavior of the larger whole toward a desired goal, or away from undesirable outcomes. We already encountered a few examples of executive functions in the coffee example, including the ability to hold a goal in mind, as well as the ability to plan and execute a sequence of behavior. An additional executive function is the capacity to follow rules based on instructions, like when you’re playing a card game. The inhibition of potential responses, such as when you stop yourself from grabbing a hot plate or eating something that’s bad for you, is yet another example.
Cognitive control is central to our daily lives and to our uniquely human experience. That’s not to say that many animals don’t share executive functions to some degree, but our species excels at organizing our behavior in complex and novel ways in order to achieve distant goals. Our economy and society as a whole are largely dependent on these abilities. It should therefore come as no surprise that deficits and problems in cognitive control can be extremely troublesome and debilitating for individuals, and can cause major problems for society at large. For instance, obesity, drug abuse, and financial irresponsibility can be seen in large part as instances of malfunctioning cognitive control. Some individuals are affected particularly strongly, but we all struggle to some degree. The more we understand about how the brain implements cognitive control and how things can go wrong, the better we will be at devising treatments and strategies to mitigate its failings.