Comparisons between corporate chief executive officers and the brain’s frontal lobes are common. Like these powerful business leaders, the frontal lobes help set goals, plan tasks, monitor progress, and make key decisions that affect the health and well being of the entire organism.
For these reasons, neuropsychologists who have studied the brain have linked the term “executive functioning” to the frontal lobes. After observing and testing those with damage or lesions to the frontal or prefrontal cortex, neuropsychologists showed that individuals had lost their abilities to plan, initiate and stop actions, that they struggled to think abstractly, and could no longer adapt to changing plans or goal interruptions.
Based on these observations, neuropsychologists developed a number of assessments and tests designed to measure executive “dysfunction” for those suffering from brain injuries or deficits to this brain area.
These tests measure impairments to the following:
- Initiating, maintaining, and ceasing actions;
- Abstract and conceptual thinking;
- Organizing behaviors toward a specific goal.
However neuropsychologists now know that damage to other areas of the brain also cause impairments in some executive functions.
They also know, thanks to the exploding number of research studies utilizing neuroimaging or scanning devices, that the frontal lobes are more similar to air traffic controllers than heads of corporations, sending and receiving information to and from almost all other brain structures and regions. They call this type of networked circuitry “distributed control.”
Neuropsychology and Executive Dysfunctions
Clinical neuropsychologists administer assessments or tests to those with brain injuries to determine the level of impairment to executive functioning – also called executive dysfunction.
- Impairments in initiating, maintaining, and ceasing actions. Some individuals with frontal lobe damage display forms of “psychological inertia.” These individuals appear disinterested in those around them, in their environment, in the basics of everyday living. Psychological inertia also results in individuals impaired in their ability to stop or change a behavior once it has started. Psychologists call the inability to stop or change a behavior perseveration.
- Impairments in abstract and conceptual thinking. Some individuals with frontal lobe damage have trouble understanding how concepts lead to generalizations, such as how patterns or properties relate to specific items or events. They don’t understand that an item or concept can have multiple meanings, or symbolize other concepts. Problem solving becomes especially hard or impossible because of the loss of the ability to use patterns or ideas to piece together solutions.
- Organizing behaviors toward a specific goal. Washing a car, baking bread, even walking the dog all seem relatively simple tasks. Yet each involves planning a sequence of actions that must be completed in the right order. In addition to planning, these actions require the ability to access memory and monitor progress toward the desired goal. If interrupted in the task, an individual must get “back on track” and return to the planned sequence of steps to achieve the goal. Some individuals with damage to the frontal lobes lose all, a few, or a combination of the behavioral skills required to complete a sequence of actions required to reach a goal.
Decisions Decide Our Lives
One of the key areas being investigated today concerning executive functioning is decision making. The emphasis on decision making stems from its ubiquitous role in most tasks associated with the frontal lobes, from the “decision” to start, maintain, or stop an action, to the decisions an individual makes while working toward specific goals. Executive function and decision making are synonymous when it comes to studying the brain’s highly evolved frontal cortex.
Neuroscientists know and still acknowledge that this part of the brain plays a key role in all higher order cognitive skills, but many now question a long-held assumption that this part of the brain is in complete control of decision making. Research studies taking place by neuroscientists and psychologists across the world are attempting to unravel the mechanics of decision making, and discover how it functions within the brain’s neuronal circuitry and complex networks.
Ray Dolan, professor of neuropsychiatry at University College London (UCL), and Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, said that instead of executive functioning, he prefers to use the term “parliament of the mind.”
The Frontal Cortex as the Body’s Parliament
Speaking on the Charlie Rose Brain Series, episode 11, Dolan explained that neuroscientific research today points to neural systems within the brain that control executive functioning rather than relegating these higher order skills functionally to one brain area or structure.
And it’s not only one system but multiple systems working together - higher level and lower level systems. “You have a parliament of the mind with more rational parties but some more low-level unreconstructed parties.”
The unreconstructed parties, meaning those that try and upset or impede the movement and leadership of the frontal lobes, include the brain centers for emotions.
Dolan prefers to think of the brain’s decision-making processes (or executive functioning) as composed of the following systems: 1) a far-sighted or rational system 2) low-level systems such as those concerning emotions, and 3) systems concerned with the rewards and punishments of certain actions or decisions.
Dolan’s thinking aligns with the many other neuroscientists working with brain-imaging devices such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and conducting psychological experiments with both animals and humans.
These images have shown how another brain structure called the amygdala, located deep within the brain and associated with orchestrating emotions, is intricately involved with the frontal lobes, or more specifically the ventromedial and orbitofrontal areas of the prefrontal cortex.
Emotions as Decision Instigators
These scientists now hypothesize that the connection to the emotional center of the brain – the amygdala – to the prefrontal cortex translates into decisions, both simple and complex, being inexplicably tied to emotions. Taking this concept a step further, these scientists also place morals in the same relationship because making moral decisions ultimately involves the emotions as well.
Hence, morals, decisions, and emotions are all tied together within the brain’s circuitry. But this connection to morals goes back into the history books, and what many consider to be the first neuroscientific case study: Phineas Gage. (see sidebar in Emotions in the Brain article).
After a metal rod pierced his skull and left Gage’s prefrontal cortex severely damaged in a freak accident in 1848, this once exemplary railroad foreman lost his moral judgment. He went from being a leader with a responsible job, to a troublesome drifter.
Connecting the brain injury to the frontal lobe lesion has been a neuroscientific staple in textbooks. However, the link to morals and Gage’s altered decision making wasn’t understood until recently when the brain scanning devices used to study living human brains have illumined the connection to the amygdala.
And that connection, according to Dolan, makes the current time one of the most exciting in the neuroscience fields. Using neuroimaging devices in empirical studies of the brain and behavior, scientists are able to directly observe the connection between decision making and aberrant behaviors, and what’s taking place within the brain – or not taking place – to cause these behaviors.
This connection Dolan, and others, believe could lead to better treatment for those with brain lesions and injuries, and exhibiting dysfunctional behaviors.
Careers Focused on Decisions
If you are passionate about studying how and why individuals make decisions, and equally passionate to learn what underlying neural mechanisms contribute to the decision-making process, consider a career in the neurosciences.
Or, if working as a neuropsychologist administering assessments to individuals with brain injuries interests you, consider a career in clinical neuropsychology.
Receiving an undergraduate or graduate degree is one of the best preparations for working in these fields. Most positions require a Ph.D.. Request information from schools offering degrees in psychology to learn more.
Ambivalence and Decision Making
This article might help you figure out something about your decision making skills; then again, it might not help you at all…
Definitely read this article regarding ambivalence; it has definite value regarding all your future decisions. There’s no question about its importance – read it now…
The writer of the first sentence is what some psychologists call a “shades of gray” type of person. This writer is ambivalent or uncertain about whether or not you should read the article.
In contrast, the writer of the second sentence is a “black and white” thinker. There’s no question in the writer’s mind on whether or not you should continue reading.
What’s your decision? Are you an undecided type of person, a person that needs to see all sides of an issue or topic before proceeding? Or are answers clear-cut in your mind, a right and wrong answer lining up neatly to dispel doubts and uncertainties?
Psychologists are interested in how people make decisions. The surge in decision-making research has many psychologists studying topics like ambivalence – topics that they once considered too difficult – or impractical. They think ambivalence has relevance in the lives of individuals, and figuring out how ambivalence functions within the decision making process will help individuals make better decisions in the future.
In the September 2010 Wall Street Journal article “Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions,” one psychologist stated that thinking in shades of gray might be a sign of maturity.
Jeff Larsen, a psychology professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, told the WSJ that it’s a “coming to grips with the complexity of the world.”
Larsen’s definition of a person who thinks in shades of gray describes what psychologists call a “highly ambivalent” individual. These people have conflicting feelings about issues, and these issues tend to span many areas of their lives, from relationships, to politics, to careers.
Larsen points to many positive aspects of ambivalent thinkers, but other psychologists point out some negatives as well. Procrastinating over decisions for long periods of time, staying in unhealthy relationships are two examples given in the article.
Black and white thinkers are less ambivalent than the shades of gray type of individuals. They make decisions more quickly than the “shades of gray” people. However, the WSJ article points out that too rigidly holding to one way of thinking might lead to conflicts with others and unhealthy ways of thinking.
In other words, the verdict is still out on the best way to tackle decisions. One could say there’s still a healthy amount of ambivalence taking place.