Cognitive control in context: Neural, functional, and social mechanisms of metacontrol (ERC Advanced Grant: http://www.metacontrol.org)
From its academic beginnings the theory of human action control has distinguished between endogenously driven, intentional action and exogenously driven, habitual, or automatic action. We challenge this dual-route model and argue that attempts to provide clear-cut and straightforward criteria to distinguish between intentional and automatic action have systematically failed. Specifically, we show that there is no evidence for intention-independent action, and that attempts to use the criterion of reward sensitivity and rationality to differentiate between intentional and automatic action are conceptually unsound. As a more parsimonious, and more feasible, alternative we suggest a unitary approach to action control, according to which actions are (i) represented by codes of their perceptual effects, (ii) selected by matching intention-sensitive selection criteria, and (ii) moderated by metacontrol states. Human action control and decision-making are traditionally understood as emerging from the competition between will (representing intentionality and rationality) and habit (representing automatized and stimulus-driven tendencies). This dual-route concept is still dominant in behavioral, clinical, and neuroscientific research. Criticism has been accommodated by allowing some degree of continuity between the two routes, but without specifying clear-cut criteria to locate behavior on this continuum, however. We suggest replacing the dual-route model by a unitary model of action control which assumes that goal-directed actions are represented in terms of expected action effects that are selected according to a match between intended and expected action effects.
The virtual hand illusion (VHI) paradigm demonstrates that people tend to perceive agency and bodily ownership for a virtual hand that moves in synchrony with their own movements. Given that this kind of effect can be taken to reflect self–other integration (i.e., the integration of some external, novel event into the representation of oneself), and given that self–other integration has been previously shown to be affected by metacontrol states (biases of information processing towards persistence/selectivity or flexibility/integration), we tested whether the VHI varies in size depending on the metacontrol bias. Persistence and flexibility biases were induced by having participants carry out a convergent thinking (Remote Associates) task or divergent-thinking (Alternate Uses) task, respectively, while experiencing a virtual hand moving synchronously or asynchronously with their real hand. Synchrony-induced agency and ownership effects were more pronounced in the context of divergent thinking than in the context of convergent thinking, suggesting that a metacontrol bias towards flexibility promotes self–other integration.
The possible connection between consciousness, deliberate choice, and action control has many interesting and far-reaching implications, including questions regarding the freedom of choice, social responsibility, and legal accountability. This chapter focuses on the possible role of consciousness in the planning and selection of rather simple actions, which often consist in just a key-press. It also focuses on the technical aspects of action control, on the mechanisms underlying the selection and planning of voluntary actions given a particular goal. Neuroscientific evidence and theorising provide support for the idea that consciousness-related cognitive functions are involved in handling response conflict. The hypothesised neural conflict monitoring system has been implicated in various aspects of conscious experience, including conscious effort and self-conscious emotional reactivity. Effective monitoring must integrate information about the current goal and stimulus-response mapping, currently available stimuli and other environmental information, and activated response tendencies.
In addition to longer-term engagement in meditation, the past years have seen an increasing interest in the impact of single bouts of meditation on cognition. In this hypothesis and theory article, we adopt the distinction between focused-attention meditation (FAM) and open-monitoring meditation (OMM) and argue that these different types of meditation have different, to some degree, opposite impact on cognitive processes. We discuss evidence suggesting that single bouts of FAM and OMM are sufficient to bias cognitive control styles towards more versus less top-down control, respectively. We conclude that all meditation techniques are not equal and that successful meditation-based intervention requires the theoretically guided selection of the best-suited technique.
The concept of embodied cognition attracts enormous interest but neither is the concept particularly well-defined nor is the related research guided by systematic theorizing. To improve this situation the theory of event coding (TEC) is suggested as a suitable theoretical framework for theorizing about cognitive embodiment-which, however, presupposes giving up the anti-cognitivistic attitude inherent in many embodiment approaches. The article discusses the embodiment-related potential of TEC, and the way and degree to which it addresses Wilson's (2002) six meanings of the embodiment concept. In particular, it is discussed how TEC considers human cognition to be situated, distributed, and body-based, how it deals with time pressure, how it delegates work to the environment, and in which sense it subserves action.
Trusting other people is essential for modern societies, in which the sheer complexity of interpersonal relationships renders more traditional control-based strategies of interpersonal cooperation increasingly inefficient (Luhmann, 1979). There is no agreed-upon standard definition of the concept of trust, but the key idea is that “trusting a person means believing that when offered the chance, he or she is not likely to behave in a way that is damaging to us” (Gambetta, 1988, p. 219). While beliefs need not necessarily be supported by reasons, people often do trust a trustee more in the face of information that allows predicting his or her behavior. This means that a core aspect of trust consists in social predictability. How does trust work? In the following, we suggest that trust reflects the absence of aversive uncertainty, which in turn depends on the degree to which the representation of another person overlaps with a representation of oneself. Based on the theory of event coding (Hommel et al., 2001) we explain how people represent themselves and others, how representational overlap determines trust, how that is affected by the situational context and the trustor's current mindset, and what this implies for interventions to induce and increase interpersonal trust.
Humans often face binary cognitive-control dilemmas, with the choice between persistence and flexibility being a crucial one. Tackling these dilemmas requires metacontrol, i.e., the control of the current cognitive-control policy. As predicted from functional, psychometric, neuroscientific, and modeling approaches, interindividual variability in metacontrol biases towards persistence or flexibility could be demonstrated in metacontrol-sensitive tasks. These biases covary systematically with genetic predispositions regarding mesofrontal and nigrostriatal dopaminergic functioning and the individualistic or collectivistic nature of the cultural background. However, there is also evidence for mood- and meditation-induced intraindividual variability (with negative mood and focused-attention meditation being associated with a bias towards persistence, and positive mood and open-monitoring meditation being associated with a bias towards flexibility), suggesting that genetic and cultural factors do not determine metacontrol settings entirely. We suggest a theoretical framework that explains how genetic predisposition and cultural learning can lead to the implementation of metacontrol defaults, which however can be shifted towards persistence or flexibility by situational factors.