Motivation of Cognitive Control: Role of Dopamine
Our third line of research represents an integration of our first and second lines of work: Dopamine’s dual roles in cognitive control and in value computation lead to the obvious next question whether value-based decisions about whether or not to exert cognitive control also depend on dopamine transmission. An answer to this question would begin to address why people so often fail to exert cognitive control. Resource allocation accounts have shifted attention from capacity limitation to motivation. According to these accounts, cognitive control comes not only with benefits, but also with a cost based on which people (learn to) decide to avoid exerting control. However, the nature of this cost of cognitive control is unclear. In ongoing work, we are studying the origins of both the cost and benefits of cognitive control: What makes some people cognition avoidant, but others cognition seeking?
Resource allocation accounts are supported by experiments that show that performance decrements caused by effort can be overcome by increases in incentive motivation, for example as a function of monetary rewards. We have demonstrated that effects of incentive motivation on cognitive control depend on striatal dopamine, in healthy volunteers and in patients with Parkinson’s disease (Aarts et al., 2010; 2012;2014; Timmer et al. 2017).
According to some such resource allocation accounts, the subjective cost of cognitive effort represents a motivational signal to switch to alternative tasks, thus promoting flexibility and preventing fixation on a current ongoing task. We are currently assessing whether failures of cognitive control can reflect a choice to pursue alternative tasks that may be more rewarding. Such a motivational mechanism would be adaptive, given that our constantly changing environment requires a dynamic balance between the cognitive states of focus and flexibility.
The key question is how we decide when to be focused and when to relax the constraints and destabilize in order to be flexible. We have argued that we arbitrate between a focused (closed) state versus a flexible (open) one, based on a cost-benefit analysis in which the value of cognitive effort corresponds to increased focus and is weighted against its (e.g. opportunity) cost, corresponding to reduced flexibility.
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Aarts E, Roelofs A, Franke B, Rijpkema M, Fernández G, Helmich RC, Cools R (2010). Striatal dopamine mediates the interface between motivational and cognitive control in humans: Evidence from genetic imaging. Neuropsychopharmacology 35:1943-1951