Mind control is impossible – sometimes even for your own mind.

Jonathan Cohen, co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University, will discuss the limitations of human focus during his presentation, “On the Rational Boundedness of Cognitive Control,” at 5:30 p.m. on March 22 at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The talk is a part of the VTCRI Distinguished Public Lecture Series.

“The capacity for cognitive control, one of the defining characteristics of human cognition, appears to be remarkably limited. Typically, people cannot engage in more than a few – and sometimes only a single – control-demanding tasks at once,” said Cohen, who is also the Robert Bendheim and Lynn Bendheim Thoman Professor in Neuroscience and a professor of psychology at Princeton University. “The reason that the capacity for control is limited remains a mystery. Structural and/or metabolic constraints are commonly, if tacitly, assumed reasons, yet these seem unlikely, given the vast resources available to the human brain.”

In this talk, Cohen will present an alternative interpretation that offers a computational, normative explanation for the capacity constraints on cognitive control. This account suggests that constraints on controlled processing reflect an inherent bias in learning toward shared representation. Cohen will describe how this account accelerates learning and supports generalization, but at the expense of constraints imposed on multitasking. He will describe theoretical results in support of these ideas, as well as the beginnings of an empirical line of research designed to test them. 

“Dr. Cohen is a preeminent neuroscientist who is elucidating the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie cognitive control and how these processes are disrupted in major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression,” said Michael Friedlander, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “He has developed some of the foundational principles on the relationship between disturbances of brain function and their manifestation as disorders of thought and behavior in psychiatric illness.

"Dr. Cohen’s work is at the very heart of the science of human decision-making that impacts multiple phases of our lives, not only in health and disease, but also in economics, policy, and politics," Friedlander continued. "We are fortunate to have a thought leader like Jonathan Cohen visit the Virginia Tech Carilion campus in Roanoke and share his insights with the community.”

Cohen earned his undergraduate degree in biology and philosophy from Yale University before completing his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He then earned his doctorate in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. 

He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, as well as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was awarded the Edward J. Sachar Award by Columbia University School of Medicine, the Salmon Award Lecturer by the New York Academy of Medicine, and the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. Cohen has published nearly 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and he designed and co-produced PsyScope, the graphical, interactive program for the design and implementation of cognitive experimental tasks on Mac computers. 

This talk will be webcast. A reception will precede the event at 5 p.m.