Executive Control, Emotion and Decision Making
A second major focus of our research is to understand the interaction between emotion and cognition, with particular emphasis on systems responsible for intuitive and deliberative processes in decision making.
Intuition and Deliberation: Dual Systems for Decision Making
Extensive neuroscience research indicates that the brain is comprised of multiple information processing systems and that behavior represents the outcome of an interaction among them. For the most part, these systems work cooperatively to guide behavior. However, when disagreements arise, behavior reflects the outcome of a competition among systems. Such circumstances are illuminating, as a way for identifying the functions of component mechanisms and by providing a possible explanation for apparent anomalies in behavior.
Accumulating evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience supports two main types of information processing systems (e.g., Barbey & Sloman, 2007): an intuitive system, including emotional processes, that is specialized for particular purposes and can respond automatically to eliciting events but is highly stereotyped in its responses and therefore relatively inflexible; and a deliberative system that is less rapid in its responses and has limited capacity at any given moment but is more flexible and able to support behavior consistent with a broader range of goals. Our research focuses on the prefrontal networks that mediate this dual processing architecture, with particular emphasis on the role of ventromedial and dorsolateral PFC.
Dual Systems Architecture of the Prefrontal Cortex
A major functional division within PFC reflects the involvement of ventromedial versus dorsolateral regions in goal-directed behavior. Ventromedial PFC is interconnected with brain areas that emphasize processing of internal information, such as emotion, memory and reward, supporting the representation of intentions and anticipated future outcomes that motivate behavior (e.g., Barbey et al., in press; Krueger et al., 2009 a). In contrast, dorsolateral PFC is heavily interconnected with cortical structures that emphasize visual-spatial processing, motor control and performance monitoring, supporting the regulation of behavior and control of responses to environmental stimuli. Our research contributes to a growing body of evidence to suggest that these PFC structures embody dual pathways for decision making, with ventromedial PFC critical for emotional and intuitive processes and dorsolateral PFC underlying deliberative mechanisms for the regulation and control of behavior. We have investigated the functional selectivity of these regions and their specific contributions to dual systems for emotional intelligence, social reasoning and moral decision making.
The importance of emotional and social processes in higher cognition has become increasingly evident, with accumulating research in social psychology and social neuroscience uncovering the emotional and social foundations of human intelligence, and their roles in perception, memory, language and thought. Our research has investigated the PFC networks that mediate key competencies of emotional and social intelligence, examining the ability to (1) monitor one's own and others' emotions; (2) discriminate between emotions; and (3) use this information to guide one's thought and behavior. To assess the neural architecture of these processes, we administered the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test to patients with focal lesions of ventromedial or dorsolateral PFC (Krueger et al., 2009 b). The results of this study indicate that ventromedial PFC is necessary for monitoring one's own and others' emotions and for making fine-grained distinctions between emotions. In contrast, dorsolateral PFC is critical for applying emotional information to guide social behavior (e.g., appropriately responding to another’s emotional state). These findings elucidate the dual processing architecture underlying emotional and social intelligence, with ventromedial PFC supporting intuitive processes for monitoring internal states (e.g., intentions and emotions) and dorsolateral PFC central for applying this knowledge to guide thought and behavior. A key contribution of this work is to further characterize the importance of dorsolateral PFC in executive control, demonstrating that this region is engaged when applying emotional information for the regulation and control of social behavior. Our recent work has further examined the contributions of emotional intelligence to general intelligence, supporting an integrative architecture for executive, social, and emotional functions (Barbey et al., 2012).
The social nature of human cognition is shaped by norms that guide social behavior and provide the basis for shared systems of value and belief (Barbey et al., 2009 a; Barbey & Grafman, in press a, 2010). Our research has investigated the architecture of social norms for obligatory, permissible and prohibited behavior, providing fMRI evidence that these categories of inference are mediated by functionally specialized regions of lateral PFC (Barbey et al., under revision). This research indicates that left dorsolateral PFC supports inferences about permissible behavior, whereas right ventrolateral PFC is preferentially recruited for reasoning about obligatory or prohibited courses of action. These findings demonstrate that lateral PFC supports the control of social behavior and motivates key predictions for clinical research, suggesting that damage to particular lateral PFC subregions will be accompanied by impairment in specific forms of normative social inference.
Moral Decision Making
A central and enduring aim of social neuroscience is to understand the brain mechanisms underlying human systems of value and belief. How does the brain represent and determine what is “right”? How does variability in the structure and function of these mechanisms relate to individual differences in moral, ethical and political belief? Our research has investigated the architecture of religious belief, providing fMRI evidence for the recruitment of a distributed network of brain regions widely implicated in social information processing (Kapogiannis et al., 2009 a, 2009 b). These findings motivate the intriguing hypothesis that religious thought may have evolved from brain mechanisms for social cognition, suggesting that religious concepts (e.g., supernatural agents and ritual practices) are shaped by mechanisms for social communication and understanding (Barbey & Grafman, in press a, 2010; Barsalou et al., 2005, 2003 a, b).
We have also investigated the neural basis of decision making in medical ethics, examining systems responsible for updating prior beliefs on the basis of new evidence (Barbey et al., under revision). This research indicates that the same evidence recruits alternative PFC networks based on whether or not it supports one’s prior beliefs. Bilateral ventromedial PFC is recruited when drawing inferences on the basis of confirmatory evidence, supporting the role of this region in intuitive processes for decision making (e.g., appealing to prior beliefs, emotions and feelings; Krueger et al., 2009 b). In contrast, left dorsolateral PFC is engaged when reasoning from evidence that causes people to change their beliefs, supporting the involvement of this region in deliberative processes for belief revision. This latter finding corroborates the observed role of left dorsolateral PFC in the manipulation of cognitive representations (Barbey et al., under revision), providing evidence for the application of these mechanisms for revising beliefs in decision making. Our current work further explores how the functional connectivity of these networks is dynamically modified during belief updating, examining mechanisms for the integration of evidence that is highly, moderately or weakly consistent (versus inconsistent) with prior beliefs.