Cognitive Control: Definition & Processes

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Cognitive control allows your mind to override your impulses and helps you make decisions based on your goals, rather than your habits or reactions. In this lesson, we'll discuss how cognitive control works, including the neurobiological processes involved.

What is Cognitive Control?

Okay, you've decided. You're going to lose that belly flab and have the shape that you want. So you modify your diet. You start an exercise program. You tell yourself that the goal is worth whatever it costs.

But it looks so tasty! Can you resist?
graphic image

But there's this doughnut. It's perfect. Besides, you forgot to eat breakfast and you're starving! You're sure that you'll drop dead by lunchtime. This doughnut is your only hope for survival. You imagine how good it's going to taste. You can almost feel the smooth, sweet goodness in your mouth. Almost of its own accord, your hand reaches out and grasps the doughnut. It's just the right texture. You'll eat this one and then you'll get right back on your diet!

Just as you're about to give in, however, a small voice in the back of your mind asks if you're really willing to give up much of your hard-earned progress just to enjoy 400 empty calories of sugar and fat. It paints images in your mind of your slim, happy self next to your overweight, dissatisfied self. You see yourself sweating and laboring on the treadmill to burn off the calories. You put down the doughnut.

Cognitive control is your mind's ability to actively create an information picture that will guide your behavior. It's what allows you to select a certain behavior that you have accepted as appropriate and reject a behavior that you have decided is inappropriate. It also clarifies your long-term goals and purposes, helping you change what you're doing in order to reach these goals. Cognitive control is at the center of your self-awareness, your highest level of consciousness, and your willpower.

The Web of Neural Processes

The cerebral cortex across the surface of the brain helps us control our actions
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Throughout your cerebral cortex (the thin, wrinkled blanket of neurons that covers most of your brain and holds most of your memories, thoughts, and awareness), there are interconnected constructs of neurons (nerve cells that communicate within your body). These protein-based three-dimensional spider webs contain your memories, your learning, your thought processes, and most of what you call 'you'. Stored among these hundreds of billions of interconnections are the choices you've made, the goals that you've set for yourself, and your self-image.

Taking Control

So what happens when cognitive control takes over? When you have an experience of any kind, neurons communicate with your brain by altering chemicals in the synapses, or gaps, between the connections that lead from your body to your brain. The chemicals 'close' the gaps, causing information to move farther along the signal lines. Sometimes these are emergency signals, like 'my hair is on fire!', which go right to your motor sensory circuits. These signals, passing through shielded neuron connections, cause your muscles to immediately go into action (for example, to put out the fire in your hair!). Signals of a less urgent nature pass into the cerebral cortex, where they blend in with all of the previous signals and help shape your thoughts and responses.

Often, you will be prompted by your experiences to act on impulse. You want something, so you grab it. These impulses can be strongly supported by the well-worn neural pathways that form your habits. If you're used to smoking, swearing, or randomly punching your brother, for example, you automatically find yourself moving toward those actions. They just seem to happen by themselves. But what if you want to change?

In your cerebral cortex, you have an entire web of experiences. They include images of what you want, imagine, and passionately desire, many of which have been run through a set of logical steps and conclusions. When logical or passionate decisions about your life happen within these interconnections (and if those interconnections are strong enough), they can intercept your automatic actions and change them, even when a habit or impulse is very strong.

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