The human brain does not come with an operating manual. However, a group of scientists from UC Santa Barbara and the University of Pennsylvania have developed a way to convert structural brain imaging techniques into “wiring diagrams” of connections between brain regions.
Three researchers from UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences — Michael Miller, Scott Grafton and Matt Cieslak — used the structure of neural networks to reveal the fundamental rules that govern which parts of the brain are most able to exert cognitive control over thoughts and actions. This study is the first to provide a mechanistic explanation for how the frontal cortex exerts control over the trillions of individual neurons that allow people to stay focused on one task or switch to a radically different one. The findings appear today in the journal Nature Communications.
“Particular regions of your brain are predisposed to control your thoughts based on where they lie in relation to other regions,” said Miller, a UCSB psychology professor and co-author of the paper. “The regions on the ‘outskirts’ can perform a very specific kind of control. They can move the system to distant states, like switching from working at your job to playing with your kids.”
This new research weds cutting-edge neuroscience with the emerging field of network science, which is often used to study social systems. By applying control theory — a field traditionally used to study electrical and mechanical systems — the investigators show that being on the outskirts of the brain is necessary for the frontal cortex to dynamically control the direction of thoughts and goal-directed behavior.