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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

October 2017, Vol. 29, No. 10, Pages 1684-1698
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01139)
Control without Controllers: Toward a Distributed Neuroscience of Executive Control
Article PDF (1.03 MB)

Executive control refers to the regulation of cognition and behavior by mental processes and is a hallmark of higher cognition. Most approaches to understanding its mechanisms begin with the assumption that our brains have anatomically segregated and functionally specialized control modules. The modular approach is intuitive: Control is conceptually distinct from basic mental processing, so an organization that reifies that distinction makes sense. An alternative approach sees executive control as self-organizing principles of a distributed organization. In distributed systems, control and controlled processes are colocalized within large numbers of dispersed computational agents. Control then is often an emergent consequence of simple rules governing the interaction between agents. Because these systems are unfamiliar and unintuitive, here we review several well-understood examples of distributed control systems, group living insects and social animals, and emphasize their parallels with neural systems. We then reexamine the cognitive neuroscience literature on executive control for evidence that its neural control systems may be distributed.