Are there control processes, and (if so) can they be studied?

Psychol Res. 2011 Nov;75(6):535-43. doi: 10.1007/s00426-011-0354-3. Epub 2011 Jun 29.


Generally, so-called control processes are thought to be necessary when we must perform one out of several competing actions. Some examples include performance of a less well-practiced action instead of a well-practiced one (prepotency); learning a new action (novelty); and rapidly switching from one action to another (task-switching). While it certainly is difficult to perform the desired action in these circumstances, it is less clear that a separate set of processes (e.g., control processes) are necessary to explain the observed behavior. Another way to approach the study of control processes is to investigate physiological dependent measures (e.g., electrophysiological or neuroimaging measures). Although these offer another avenue of inquiry into control processes, they have yet to furnish unambiguous evidence that control processes exist. While this might suggest that there are no control processes, it is also possible that our methods are insufficiently sensitive to measure control processes. We have investigated this latter possibility using tasks that are neuroanatomically distinct, though within the same modality (vision). This approach did not yield evidence for a separable set of control processes. However, recent works using a task-switching paradigm in which subjects switch between a visual and an auditory task suggest that switching both task and modality may be importantly different than switching task within a given modality. This may represent a way forward in the study of control processes.

MeSH terms

  • Behavioral Research
  • Brain / physiology
  • Cognition* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Neurophysiology
  • Perception / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance* / physiology