The structure of cognition: attentional episodes in mind and brain

Neuron. 2013 Oct 2;80(1):35-50. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.09.015. Epub 2013 Oct 2.


Cognition is organized in a structured series of attentional episodes, allowing complex problems to be addressed through solution of simpler subproblems. A "multiple-demand" (MD) system of frontal and parietal cortex is active in many different kinds of tasks, and using data from neuroimaging, electrophysiology, neuropsychology, and cognitive studies of intelligence, I propose a core role for MD regions in assembly of the attentional episode. Monkey and human data show dynamic neural coding of attended information across multiple MD regions, with rapid communication within and between regions. Neuropsychological and imaging data link MD function to fluid intelligence, explaining some but not all "executive" deficits after frontal lobe lesions. Cognitive studies link fluid intelligence to goal neglect, and the problem of dividing complex task requirements into focused parts. Like the innate releasing mechanism of ethology, I suggest that construction of the attentional episode provides a core organizational principle for complex, adaptive cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / psychology
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / physiology
  • Neuropsychological Tests