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Doing things Badre: Dr. Badre deconstructs cognitive control

April 21, 2023

Dr. David Badre, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University—and whose name is pronounced “better”—delivered a talk entitled “How Our Brains Get Things Done” last night. The lecture shares a name with his 2020 book, which a book club of around 30 students, led by Stephanie Dailey ’23, recently read.

Dailey is currently conducting an independent study with Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology Erika Nyhus that focuses on community-building around neuroscience and increasing the accessibility of information around it. While her ultimate goal is to restart the Neuroscience Club, which has not met since before the Covid-19 pandemic, Dailey decided to start with reading groups and guest speakers.

She found Badre’s book on recommended book lists. Serendipitously, Nyhus informed her that Badre had advised her post-doctorate at Brown. Nyhus then got in contact with Badre and organized his visit to Bowdoin.

While Badre’s book delves into cognitive control in depth, he framed the talk as an introduction to the subject. Cognitive control is a class of different mental functions that allows us to connect what we know to what we do.

The basis for this thought process is primarily in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain markedly more pronounced in humans than in animals.

Badre used metaphors throughout the talk to aid in understanding of complicated subjects: He described what information our brain chooses to take in as a gate, not absorbing everything going around—instead, choosing what is important and letting unneeded knowledge exit. When we prevent ourselves from taking an action that pops into our mind in response to a stimulus, it’s because our brains are “pushing down on the brake.” And, the reason why multitasking is stressful is because the tasks we are trying to accomplish are like cars on a road—it’s easy to create traffic.

Badre engaged the audience in an interactive activity to prove this point about multitasking. A number in a blue circle would flash on the screen. The audience would raise their left hand for even, right hand for odd. In the next round, with a green circle instead of blue, the left hand was for less than five and the right was for more. Hands shot up quickly. However, Badre then combined the tasks—the audience had to respond by using the correct rule for the color and number shown on the screen. This time hands went up more slowly and hesitantly.

“If you haven’t already heard, let me insist to you: We are all bad at multitasking,” Badre said. “The evidence is, the people that think they are good at multitasking are actually the worst at multitasking.… You actually add time. You end up with a lot of cognitive overhead and it takes more time to do it.”

Badre went over three main points in his talk, which he flashed on the PowerPoint throughout: “There is a gap between knowledge and action that the brain must bridge (with cognitive control),” “The human brain bridges the gap by elaborating an ancient circuit for controlling movements and applying it to thought” and “The benefits of control also comes with costs.”

In the audience Q&A portion, questions that were posed included the influence of emotions on the cognitive control process, which Badre said affects willingness to take on mental challenges. In response to a question about how the brain decides what information to take in, Badre responded that it is a combination of what we’ve learned over our lives, inferences about the situation and our ability to transfer knowledge from one situation to another. This learning process takes years, which Badre explained is part of the reason why children have poorer self-control than adults.

Dailey hopes that the College community can learn from both the talk and her possible future endeavors with the club.

“This would be the goal of the club if we were able to do this—creating a low-pressure environment [where] people can just learn about these topics and talk about them and not necessarily be experts in it,” she said. “So, I’m hoping that that will come out of it, that people can just have an interesting conversation and be curious about this stuff and not feel like it’s for a class or for something like that and just could be a more low-stakes opportunity to build that community and just chat with people that are interested in something similar.”


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