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James Damascus's picture

The Prefrontal Cortex, Abstract Thought and Executive Control

I was reading through a neuroscience textbook this past weekend as well as some articles, and found an interesting article concerning the prefrontal cortex and abstract thought:                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The article describes a 2001 study performed at MIT concerning pattern recognition and abstract thought. The study, in which monkeys apply rules about ‘same’ and ‘different’ images, shows that the prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain directly behind the eyes -- works on the abstract assignment rather than simply recalling the pictures. In other words, the prefrontal cortex is involved in figuring out the rules of the “same/different” activity, rather than the simple performance of the activity. What is innovative about this approach to brain research is that it deals with abstract patterning and recognition, whereas traditional studies have focused on structures responsible for performing specific tasks, such as moving muscles or image recognition                                                                                    The Study:                                                                                                                                    Over a period of nine months, the researchers trained a group of monkeys to identify whether hundreds of different pictures were the same or different images. By recording signals from neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the monkeys as they performed cognitive processes, the scientists monitored the regions associated with “holding information in mind”, a requisite ability for information processing and thinking.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The monkeys were trained to pull a joystick if a picture was the same as the one shown before. At other times, the monkeys were required to pull the lever to identify different images. The monkeys could apply the rule to pictures they had never seen before, showing that they were dealing with abstractions. By the end of the nine month period, the monkeys were able to respond instantly to the rule and were right more than 85 percent of the time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 In studies of monkeys and humans with damage to the prefrontal cortex, researchers have found many of the same cognitive problems seen in schizophrenic patients. Among them is what is widely believed to be a disorder of working memory, which allows you to keep several pieces of information in mind simultaneously.  Abnormal functioning of the prefrontal cortex is implicated in schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other diseases.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Why This Should Be interesting To Us:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The aim of this study is to gain some insight into what we’ve been referring to in class as the “I function” (the article uses the phrase “executive or cognitive control”). What this study suggests is that, although we know very little about abstract thought and its analogues, the responsible neurons are physiologically situated in the prefrontal cortex.  While there are certainly limitations to this kind of research, and, granted, we may never fully understand the physiological analogues associated with abstract thought and executive control, the investigative process is itself immeasurably valuable. If all aspects of human experience (philosophy, art, weapons of mass destruction) are byproducts of abstract thought, we have much to gain from neurobiological research.


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