Cognitive Neuroscience of Executive Control

The processing of sensory input in mammalian systems is accomplished through the interplay of bottom-up, top-down, and lateral projections present throughout the brain. The functional role of these patterns of connectivity is generally believed to be important, but is not well-understood. One hypothesis is that this multi-directionality supports a form of mutual constraint satisfaction in which partial activation of lower-level feature detectors linked to object classes constrain activation of experience-dependent, higher level representations, which in turn feed back to constrain (reinforce ) lower-level feature detectors that cohere with them. While the general notion of mutual constraint satisfaction is broadly understood, little systematic effort has been undertaken to elucidate the nature of the underlying dynamics. What is the content of the back-projected information? How is this conditioned by the particular image features obscured or absent in the input? Are back projections purely attentive, or do they also play a role in pre-attentive processing? Can the processing capabilities implemented in the bi-directionality of brain connectivity be exploited to enhance the information processing robustness of engineered systems?

Breakdowns in the top-down control of processing, for example, in the lapsing of attention, or mind-wandering, have a potentially profound adverse impact on skilled performance, particularly in complex, highly time-constrained tasks that are common in military operations. Mechanistically, what are the causes and impacts of these breakdowns on performance? What are their implications for the selection and placement of people in highly demanding military jobs? Can training techniques be developed to reduce the frequency of these attentional breakdowns?

Research Challenges and Opportunities

  • Develop an evidence-based mechanistic understanding of the role of bi-directional processing in the interpretation of complex, cluttered sensory inputs
  • Exploit the unfolding understanding of the mechanisms of cognitive control to create engineered solutions for the analysis of optical, passive acoustic signals and active sonar emissions
  • Create validated, nuanced measures of the level of attentional focus and distraction
  • Develop objective measures of individual differences in attentional control and validate them in complex task scenarios
  • Create training technologies that enhance cognitive control under stress

Program Contact Information

Name: Dr. Harold Hawkins

Title: Program Officer

Department: Code 34

Division: Human and Bioengineered Systems


Office of Naval Research
875 N. Randolph Street
Arlington, Va. 22203

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