Arts & Sciences

Who’s in cognitive control?

Cognitive control varies greatly among the healthy, but is also a component in many neuropsychiatric disorders. A new research project from the lab of Todd Braver aims to better understand the brain basis of this faculty and how it varies between individuals and among groups. (Image: Shutterstock)

Are you able to start a task and stick with it, all the way through, ignoring the temptations of the internet or the sudden realization that you should probably do the laundry?

Or maybe you should be doing something else right this moment?

The faculty that allows people to make plans or goals, and carry them out without losing focus, is called cognitive control. Healthy individuals vary substantially in their ability to utilize cognitive control, and many neuropsychiatric disorders have been linked to cognitive control problems.

But there’s quite a bit that researchers still don’t know: exactly how and why does cognitive control vary from person to person? Which areas of the brain are involved? How does brain activity relate to behavior?


Todd Braver, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences, along with appointments in radiology and neuroscience at the School of Medicine, at Washington University in St. Louis, is working to answer those questions. He and his research team believe they have developed a more robust research method, and they recently published the first of what promises to be many studies examining the brain basis of cognitive control both in individuals and across groups.  

Their initial findings were published online Aug. 19 for the September issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

When it comes to researching cognitive control, a typical study involves looking at how the subjects tackle one or two laboratory tasks. The results are then generalized to apply to the larger question researchers are interested in.

“We all kind of know it’s not the most valid approach,” Braver said. That’s because the cognitive control necessary to perform one task under one circumstance may not be indicative of different types of tasks under different circumstances. “But because of its simplicity, that’s how the field standardly tackles these types of research questions.”

To try to obtain more generalizable results, Braver devised a research framework which not only uses a full battery of cognitive tests, but also looks at them across a variety of conditions.

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