The Evolutionary Origin of Cognitive Flexibility

Human Orbitofrontal Cortex Signals Decision Outcomes to Sensory Cortex During Flexible Tactile Learning

Author: Ruhr-University Bochum
Published: 2023/06/16 - Updated: 2023/06/27
Publication Type: Study - Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Contents: Summary - Main - Related Publications

Synopsis: Cognitive functions following comparable rules in different species are important for survival, such as the flexibility to adapt quickly to suddenly changing conditions. Every day, people are confronted with situations that were actually planned quite differently. Flexibility is what helps. The origin of this skill in the brain is called cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is essential for the survival of all species on Earth. It is particularly based on functions of the so-called orbitofrontal cortex located in the frontal brain.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to appropriately adjust one's behavior according to a changing environment. The term cognitive flexibility is traditionally used to refer to one of the executive functions. In this sense, it can be seen as neural underpinnings of adaptive and flexible behavior. Cognitive flexibility enables an individual to work efficiently to disengage from a previous task, reconfigure a new response set, and implement this new response set to the task at hand. Greater cognitive flexibility is associated with favorable outcomes throughout the lifespan such as better reading abilities in childhood, higher resilience to negative life events and stress in adulthood, higher levels of creativity in adulthood, and better quality of life in older individuals.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines cognitive flexibility as: "The capacity for objective appraisal and appropriately flexible action. Cognitive flexibility also implies adaptability and fair-mindedness." - APA Dictionary of Psychology, "Cognitive Flexibility".

Main Digest

"Human Orbitofrontal Cortex Signals Decision Outcomes to Sensory Cortex During Flexible Tactile Learning" - Nature Communications.

Get up. Go to the kitchen. Prepare some cereal - but a look into the fridge shows: the milk bottle is empty. What now? Skip breakfast? Ask the neighbour for milk? Eat jam sandwiches?

Every day, people are confronted with situations that were actually planned quite differently. Flexibility is what helps. The origin of this skill in the brain is called cognitive flexibility. A neuroscientific research team at the Berufsgenossenschaftliches Universitätsklinikum Bergmannsheil, University Hospital of Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, and the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University has now succeeded in getting a little closer to the evolutionary origin of cognitive flexibility. The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Key Factor in Many Neuropsychiatric Diseases

Cognitive flexibility is essential for the survival of all species on Earth. It is particularly based on functions of the so-called orbitofrontal cortex located in the frontal brain.

"The loss of cognitive flexibility in everyday life is a key factor in many neuropsychiatric diseases," Professor Burkhard Pleger and first author Dr. Bin Wang from the Berufsgenossenschaftliches Universitätsklinikum Bergmannsheil describe their motivation for the study. "Understanding the underlying network mechanisms is therefore essential for the development of new therapeutic methods."

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the Bochum team and their cooperation partner Dr. Abhishek Banerjee from the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University examined the brain functions of 40 participants while they were learning a sensorimotor task.

While lying in the MRI, the volunteers had to learn to recognise the meaning of different touch signals - similar to those used in Braille - on the tip of the right index finger. One touch signal told the participants to press a button with their free hand, while another signal instructed them not to do so and to remain still. The connection between the two different touch signals and pressing the button or not pressing the button had to be learned from trial to trial. The challenge: after a certain time, the touch signals changed their meaning. What had previously meant "pressing the button" now meant "holding still" - an ideal experimental set-up to investigate the volunteers' cognitive flexibility. The fMRI provided images of the corresponding brain activity.

Similarities Between Humans and Mice

"Similar studies had already been done with mice in the past," says Pleger. "The learning task we chose now allowed us to observe the brains of mice and humans under comparable cognitive demands."

A surprising finding is the comparability between the Bochum results in humans and the previously published data from mice, Wang points out. The similarity shows that cognitive functions that are important for survival, such as the flexibility to adapt quickly to suddenly changing conditions, are following comparable rules in different species.

In addition, the Bochum scientists were able to determine a close involvement of sensory brain regions in the processing of the decisions made during tactile learning. Wang emphasises:

"Besides the frontal brain, sensory regions are essential for decision-making in the brain. Similar mechanisms had also previously been observed in mice," adds Pleger. "This now suggests that the interplay between the frontal brain and sensory brain regions for decision-making was formed early in the evolutionary development of the brain."

Attribution/Source(s):

This peer reviewed publication pertaining to our Anthropology and Disability section was selected for circulation by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "The Evolutionary Origin of Cognitive Flexibility" was originally written by Ruhr-University Bochum, and submitted for publishing on 2023/06/16 (Edit Update: 2023/06/27). Should you require further information or clarification, Ruhr-University Bochum can be contacted at the ruhr-uni-bochum.de/en website. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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