Search, Goals, and the Brain

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3 Author(s)

The process of cognitive search invokes a purposeful and iterative process by which an organism considers information of a potentially diverse nature and selects a particular option that best matches the appropriate criteria. This chapter focuses on the neurobiological basis of such a goal-directed search by parsing the process into its main components, suggested here as initiation, identification of search space, deliberation, action selection, and evaluation and search termination. Unexpected uncertainty is suggested as a key trigger for the onset of the search process. Current data posit that this is represented in the anterior cingulate, parietal, and inferior frontal cortices, suggesting these areas could be particularly important in search initiation. A change in motivational state, likely signaled by a wide range of brain regions including the amygdala, can also play a role at this stage. The neural structures which represent the set of to-be-searched options may vary depending on the search domain (e.g., spatial, visual, linguistic). During deliberation, predictions regarding the consequences of selecting these options are generated and compared, implicating areas of frontal cortex as well as the hippocampus and striatum, which are known to play a role in different aspects of outcome evaluation. Action planning and selection likely involve an interplay between the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, whereas search termination could involve the specific neural networks implicated in response inhibition. The influence exerted over the search process by the major ascending neuromodulators (dopamine, norepinephrine/noradrenaline, serotonin, and acetylcholine) is also considered, and a particularly critical role suggested for dopamine and noradrenaline, given their ability to influence cognitive flexibility and arousal. Finally, pathologies of search processes are discussed, both with respect to brain damage and psychiatric illness.