Actions and habits: The relation between cognitive control and behavioural autonomy

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of Psychology

Abstract

When one comes to a difficult task, such as learning to drive a car, for the first time, each action you perform seems to require tremendous mental effort, and sequencing appropriate actions together (mirror, signal, manoeuvre) even more so, especially whilst you are performing some other task, such as changing gear. However, over time and with practice, you become able to perform each of these tasks seemingly effortlessly, with little apparent interference between them; now you can change gear, change lanes and hold a conversation with your passenger. Tasks that were once almost impossible, and that took all your attention to perform, become simple, and are performed without much conscious thought or dedicated attention. This project examines the different brain systems that underpin this transition between the mentally challenging, effortful production of responses that each require your full attention, and the fluid, reflexive production of habits that comes with experience. There is good reason for these two systems to exist / if we were all required to devote our full attention to all the tasks we perform, we would have little time or attention left to think about anything else / it is only because we can learn to perform tasks habitually and without effort that we free up our mental resources for learning about new events and concentrating on things that are important to us. At the same time, we need to have a way of concentrating our mind to allow us to override habits / just because we usually drive one route to work, and traverse that route almost without thinking, doesn't mean we should be incapable of varying that route if we know there are going to be roadworks. Recent evidence from non-human animals and humans suggests that we do indeed possess two systems of this sort. The proposed research will examine in detail the way in which different parts of the brain participate in the two systems. In particular, we will examine the involvement of two regions of the brain that seem to be involved. One, known as the prefrontal cortex, is the part of the brain that is most well developed in humans relative to other animals, and is often thought to be the region that allows us to control and plan our actions, and make decisions about what we want to do. The second is an evolutionarily more ancient region of the brain known as the striatum, and this is thought to be involved in basic response learning processes that then need control and direction, perhaps from the prefrontal cortex. What we want to know is how are different areas of these two regions involved in tasks when they are mentally-demanding and when they subsequently become habitual. At the same time, we also want to know if there is competition between these systems, and if this competition is the same sort of competition one experiences when trying to do two things at once (such as patting one's head and rubbing one's stomach). Finally, we want to find out what features of a task, and our experience with it, allow us to make the transition from effortful to habitual control (and back) / despite what is commonly thought, recent evidence suggests that it is not simple repetition of an action that leads to habit formation. Rather, the transition to habits seems to depend on the relationship between an action and the consistency with which that action produces a certain outcome. This work will not only inform us about the mental and brain processes that allow us to function normally, but is also important in relation to a variety of mental disorders in which processes governing our voluntary and habitual responses are disrupted. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and, of course, habitual processes known to be important in drug-addiction.

Technical Summary

The ability to learn to perform purposive, goal-directed actions endows animals with a highly beneficial degree of behavioural flexibility in the face of ever-changing environmental conditions. However, this voluntary control of performance comes with a price in terms of effortful control and monitoring of the response, frequently reducing the capacity for alternative cognitive processing. One way in which animals can come to balance the twin desire for simplicity and flexibility is through the development of habits. A venerable research history documents the notion that an initially effortful and cognitively-demanding response comes, with practice, to be produced fluidly and without difficulty. This view is reflected in the development of two-process theories of behavioural responding that depends on both mechanistic, reflexive stimulus-response (S-R) habits (either acquired or innate) and on actions that are voluntary and goal-directed. The project proposed will use rats to examine the neural substrates of goal-directed and habitual responding, contrasting a goal-directed circuit involving the prelimbic prefrontal cortex, (posterior) dorsomedial striatum and basolateral amygdala, with a habitual circuit comprising infralimbic prefrontal cortex, dorsolateral striatum, and potentially the central nucleus of the amygdala. Further experiments will examine the involvement of these circuits in another situation where there is competition between alternative response systems using a recently developed response conflict task that pitches alternative instrumental responses against one another. Finally, we will use a novel virtual maze environment to examine the role of habitual and goal-directed systems in the control of proximal and distal instrumental responses, to examine the role of uncertainty in the transition between these systems, and to examine the exploration vs. exploitation trade-off in the development of novel instrumental response sequences.

Publications

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Josephine Haddon (Author) (2008) Contextual control of biconditional task performance: evidence for cue and response competition in rats. in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology

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Haddon JE (2008) Contextual control of biconditional task performance: evidence for cue and response competition in rats. in Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006)

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Haddon JE (2014) Extreme elemental processing in a high schizotypy population: relation to cognitive deficits. in Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006)

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Haddon JE (2011) Impaired conditional task performance in a high schizotypy population: relation to cognitive deficits. in Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006)

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Josephine Haddon (Speaker) (2010) Mechanisms of habit formation

 
Description When one comes to a difficult task, such as learning to drive a car, for the first time, each action you perform seems to require tremendous mental effort, and sequencing appropriate actions together (mirror, signal, manoeuvre) even more so, especially whilst you are performing some other task, such as changing gear. However, over time and with practice, you become able to perform each of these tasks seemingly effortlessly, with little apparent interference between them; now you can change gear,
Exploitation Route Although some way off, this work has the potential to increase our understanding (and treatment) of disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. By understanding the way in which habits develop in a healthy system, and the neurobiology underpinning this systems, we can begin to understand how these processes may be disrupted in disease states, and hopefully point to novel ways in which such conditions may be treated. This work is currently being adapted for use with mouse models of alzheimer
Sectors Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

 
Description Defining the disturbance in cortical glutamate and GABA function in psychosis, its origins and consequences, Experimental Medicine Challenge
Amount £4,252,721 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/K020803/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2013 
End 08/2017
 
Description Diverse serotonin 2C-receptor mediated behaviours resulting from snoRNA regulated post-transcriptional modification,
Amount £471,803 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/J016756/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2012 
End 09/2015
 
Description MRC Centenary Award, Identification of genome-wide targets for neurodevelopment
Amount £42,100 (GBP)
Funding ID G081418/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2012 
End 12/2012
 
Description MRC Centenary Award, Investigating enduring maternal effects on adult behaviour abnormalities in Zfp804a mutants
Amount £18,649 (GBP)
Funding ID G081418/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2013 
End 07/2013
 
Description MRC Centre Award
Amount £3,200,000 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/L010305/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Department MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2014 
End 07/2019
 
Description WT Strategic Award DEFINE - Defining Endophenotypes from Integrated Neurosciences
Amount £5,234,843 (GBP)
Funding ID 100202/Z/12/Z 
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Department Wellcome Trust Strategic Award
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2013 
End 07/2018
 
Description Wellcome Trust Seeding Drug Discovery Award Scheme
Amount £4,000,000 (GBP)
Funding ID G1345 
Organisation Wellcome Trust 
Department Wellcome Trust Translation Award
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2014 
End 07/2017
 
Description The neural basis of reward and decision making 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research or patient groups
Results and Impact Workshop at the Institutio Gulbenkian de Ciencia, Oeiras, Portugal (2007)

no actual impacts realised to date
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007