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Cognitive control in context: Neural, functional, and social mechanisms of metacontrol

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - Metacontrol (Cognitive control in context: Neural, functional, and social mechanisms of metacontrol)

Reporting period: 2021-06-01 to 2021-11-30

Human behavior is particularly flexible, which allows us to adapt to continuously changing conditions and situations. How is that possible, how do we achieve this adaptivity? The project METACONTROL assumes that humans can perceive, decide, and act under different mental modes—"metacontrol modes" as we call them. Sometimes people tend to be more *persistent*, keeping and following their current goal even under challenging conditions, and ignoring any information that is unrelated to the current goal. This is useful to keep going, to reach challenging goals, and to avoid distractions and temptations. But sometimes people can also be more *flexible*, which may include trading one’s current goal for another, more promising one. Such a mode is useful when working on an unrealistic, over-challenging goal, or when more interesting, more rewarding alternative goals are available.
The aim of this project was to characterize and better understand the mental set allowing us to be persistent or flexible and study the conditions under which people tend to be more persistent and when they are more flexible. We were also interested to see when and how people tend to switch between persistence and flexibility, which would make them particularly adaptive. We also aimed to study the brain processes involved in being persistent or flexible, and in creating models that allow us to predict when people are persistent or flexible, and which individuals tend to be more persistent or more flexible overall. Finally, the project aims to characterize the consequences of being persistent or flexible with respect to human performance and social interaction.
The project yielded 5 interesting findings.

1. Individuals are very adaptive in preparing for tasks. Previous research indicated that people differ with respect to persistence and flexibility, suggesting the existence of Individual metacontrol biases ("metatraits"). However, we found various indications of a considerable degree of adaptivity. For instance, the same individual can be very persistent in one task and very flexible in another, even if the two tasks are similar and carried out almost at the same time. This means that people can very quickly adjust their metacontrol mode to the present task.

2. However, people might differ with respect to the degree of adaptivity: some people may be more sensitive to the different mental challenges related to particular tasks and adjust their mental set more appropriately to each given task. We also found preliminary evidence that this degree of adaptivity might be related to the neurotransmitter serotonin.

3. Mental persistence and flexibility are also known to rely on dopamine, another human neurotransmitter. We used brainscans of particularly high resolution and found that one of the generators of dopamine in the brain, the ventral tegmental area, is much less homogeneous than hitherto believed and as known from animal research. This opens the possibility that the human brain has developed to integrate different dopaminergic generators more tightly than in other primates, which in turn might have allowed the phylogenetic development of metacontrol. To facilitate brain research on metacontrol, we collaborated with Prof. Birte Forstmann at the University of Amsterdam to create a probabilistic brain atlas of the ventral tegmental area.

4. We found that metacontrol does not so much influence the way we perceive and store events but, rather, affect how we interpret and act upon events. While a high degree of persistence limits the retrieval of knowledge to those aspect that are absolutely necessary for the current task, a high degree of flexibility increases the scope of the information we consider.

5. We also found that our goals seem to affect almost everything we perceive and do. While traditional theories distinguish between intentional and automatic processes, assuming that we can control some but not all of our information processing, our findings suggest that even what seems to be automatic processes are actually contingent on our present goal/s. Hence, even unconscious processing seems to be under goal control.
The project:
- has strongly increased our insights into the neural and neurochemical underpinnings of human metacontrol.
- has challenged and improved our understanding of the structural underpinnings of dopaminergic processing in the human brain.
- indicates that humans can be very flexible in adjusting their mental set to the current task, but some individuals may be more adaptive than others.
- suggests that goals play an even stronger organizing role in human cognition than traditionally assumed.
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