Cognitive and Executive Function Theories of The Brain Causing Behavior Don’t Make Sense


I am not a neuroscientist but as a hard-headed marketer.  I get hired to do things that change behavior — that work.  So, I do study and work to make sense of the evidence to hopefully save time in discovering what has the best chance to work.

I am not convinced by the executive function (EF) and cognitive (Cog) models.  Further, since cognitive/executive function are the dominant model and the most funded, I propose they also distract from more biologically deterministic models — since the cognitive models are all based on cultural beliefs, everyday language and the primacy of subjective experience.  

As a marketer, I recognize telling people what they want to hear to make a theory more popular and acceptable.  Cognitive models presume the primacy of subjective experience and everyday intuition.  The core premise is “Mind over matter.”  That words and language, aka “thinking”, whether imagined internally or externally, measured with self reports, will effect neuronal and brain functions – and do so very quickly.

With the emphasis on frontal lobes and verbal processing executive function theories too easily slip into human exceptionalism.  Certainly, no other animal can do anything close to human cognition, duh…  So, somehow there is a biologically discontinuous, unconserved, special property of the human “mind.”  Expressed only using everyday language and mainly academic English!?

For example, the core executive functions — “the ability to avoid distractions, focus attention, hold relevant information in working memory, and regulate impulsive behavior’ — require conscious/language based, internal dialog to happen.  Clearly other animals do this stuff with no conscious/language-based executive functions and lesser frontal lobes, etc.?

  • Further Chisek, experimental work suggests:

“This distributed competition [of neurons competition “deciding” behaviors] is continuously influenced by a variety of biasing inputs, including rule-based inputs from prefrontal regions, reward predictions from basal ganglia or any variable pertinent to making a choice.  While these diverse biases may contribute their ‘votes’ to different loci along the distributed fronto-parietal sensorimotor competition, their effects are shared across the network owing to its reciprocal connectivity.

Consequently, the decision is not determined by any single central “executive,” but simply depends upon which regions are the first to commit to a given action strongly enough to pull the rest of the system into a ‘distributed consensus.  Simultaneous recordings across the cerebral cortex suggest that during simple decisions, such a consensus is reached in a diversity of brain regions at approximately 150 ms.”

“A role of cortical regions in action selection does not imply that subcortical regions are not also involved. In particular, there is ample evidence that the basal ganglia play a significant role in action selection. One possibility is that the basal ganglia played a major role in action selection in early vertebrates, which did not have an elaborate cortex, but over time the cortical part of the cortico-striatal system grew in complexity and took on a larger role in selection.  A large topologically organized structure such as the cerebral cortex is particularly well-suited to performing selection between spatially distinct potential actions within a single effector system (e.g. selecting between reaching to different objects),  while a centralized ‘hub’ like the basal ganglia may be most involved in selecting between different types of action (e.g. selecting whether to reach or to run, or to do nothing at all).

Such a division of labour may provide a way to reconcile proposals that the basal ganglia are involved in selection with recent experiments showing that inactivation of the main output nuclei does not impair selection, but instead reduces movement vigour.  Perhaps disrupting the basal ganglia output to the reaching system did not interfere with a cortical selection of ‘where to reach’, but simply reduced a bias signalling ‘whether to reach’.

The affordance competition hypothesis suggests a candidate mechanism for dealing with the challenges of embodied behaviour.  It proposes that sensory information is continuously used to specify the parameters of several potential actions in parallel, and these compete against each other under the influence of biases coming from a variety of sources, including the basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex.  This differs from classical psychological models in several ways.  Most importantly, classical models assume that all processes of deliberation and commitment occur within a prefrontal central executive and their results are then relayed to motor systems.  By contrast, we propose that, at least in the case of embodied decisions commitment takes place through a distributed consensus within sensorimotor systems.  Deliberation involves both the dynamics of the sensorimotor competition as well as the computation of relevant biases in regions traditionally considered ‘cognitive’.”

Any theory that suggests conscious/language-based, time delayed brain processing to “decide” actions further suggests that some sort of everyday language-based instruction will change behavior.  It also subsumes the basal and midbrain processes to cortical control or at least influence – top-down.  How this is down biomechanically in the 140-200 ms frame work that Cizek, Glimcher and most other experimenters have found is puzzling – at best.

Cognitive models presume that “higher order concepts” ainly expressed in cultural, intuitive, folklore and subjective experiences are biologically primary for behavior and yet – pretty exclusive to our species!?  Go figure.


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