Review

Managing competing goals — a key role for the frontopolar cortex

  • Nature Reviews Neuroscience 18, 645657 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nrn.2017.111
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Abstract

Humans are set apart from other animals by many elements of advanced cognition and behaviour, including language, judgement and reasoning. What is special about the human brain that gives rise to these abilities? Could the foremost part of the prefrontal cortex (the frontopolar cortex), which has become considerably enlarged in humans during evolution compared with other animals, be important in this regard, especially as, in primates, it contains a unique cytoarchitectural field, area 10? The first studies of the function of the frontopolar cortex in monkeys have now provided critical new insights about its precise role in monitoring the significance of current and alternative goals. In human evolution, the frontopolar cortex may have acquired a further role in enabling the monitoring of the significance of multiple goals in parallel, as well as switching between them. Here, we argue that many other forms of uniquely human behaviour may benefit from this cognitive ability mediated by the frontopolar cortex.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Keiji Tanaka (at RIKEN Brain Science Institute) for his contribution to our proposed functional model of the frontopolar cortex in monkeys. We would like to thank R. Tweedale for editorial suggestions..

Author information

Author notes

    • Farshad Alizadeh Mansouri
    •  & Etienne Koechlin

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Biomedicine Discovery Institute and Department of Physiology, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, 3800, Australia.

    • Farshad Alizadeh Mansouri
    •  & Marcello G. P. Rosa
  2. Australian Research Council, Centre of Excellence in Integrative Brain Function, Clayton, Victoria, 3800, Australia.

    • Farshad Alizadeh Mansouri
    •  & Marcello G. P. Rosa
  3. Cognitive Neuroscience Research Centre, Kerman University of Medical Sciences, Kerman, Iran.

    • Farshad Alizadeh Mansouri
  4. Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29, rue d'Ulm, 75005 Paris, France.

    • Etienne Koechlin
  5. Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University, Oxford, OX1 3UD, UK.

    • Mark J. Buckley

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Contributions

The authors all wrote the article, and all authors researched data for it. The authors all made a substantial contribution to the discussion of content and reviewed and/or edited the manuscript before submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Farshad Alizadeh Mansouri or Etienne Koechlin.

Glossary

Episodic memory

A memory of events enriched by contextual information such as the associated emotion, place and time.

Working memory

A process of short-term storage of information to support ongoing or upcoming actions.

Analogical reasoning

A process of reasoning based on comparison between objects, events or models to help in understanding, learning and decision-making.

Transitive inference

A process of reasoning based on relationships between objects or events to help in understanding, learning and decision-making.

Theory of mind

Cognitive ability that allows one to infer someone else's beliefs, intents, desires and feelings.

Tower of London test

A cognitive test of planning in which participants must plan the order of balls on a peg based on a given template.

Conflict cost

The adverse effects on speed and accuracy that arise as a result of competition or conflict between behavioural choices in experimental tasks.

Conflict adaptation

The behavioural effects of conflict that affect performance in the subsequent trial, where they are manifested as a behavioural improvement if the subject is faced with conflict again.