The grant will fund brain imaging and other experiments aimed at discovering how the brain exerts cognitive control over thoughts and behavior, keeping humans on task and able to achieve long-term goals. Cognitive control is fundamental to higher-level mental activities such as planning, problem-solving, and social interactions, said Jonathan Cohen, the Robert Bendheim and Lynn Bendheim Thomas Professor in Neuroscience at Princeton, who is leading the project. In addition to using the university's brain imaging equipment, researchers at the university will develop computational models of brain function and new brain imaging methods for studying cognitive control.
Specifically, the grant will support efforts to address five questions: how do we exert self-control over such impulses as resisting the urge to scratch a mosquito bite or the temptation to cheat on a diet; how does the brain manage and remember goals and competing sub-goals; what goes into deciding when to commit a plan to long-term memory rather than keep it actively in mind; how do we balance goal-directed behavior with discovery and learning; and how can we improve on the machine-learning algorithms that take brain scans and decode what people are thinking about at a particular time.
"Our studies will reveal how the brain accomplishes real-world tasks — everything from ignoring distractions when driving to sticking to your diet," said Cohen, whose work centers on developing theories of cognitive control as well as testing those theories using brain imaging. "This understanding may point the way to new interventions for strengthening cognitive control in healthy individuals...and restoring it where it is impaired, as in neuropsychiatric disorders."