Monday, December 12, 2005

Task-Switching, Emotional Motivation, and Reward

Task-switching is a common cognitive task associated with attention and cognitive control. In this very interesting study, researchers examined what brain areas were associated with good task switching ability. Surprisingly, the most highly correlated area for efficient task switching was the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region implicated in emotional and social motivation and reward.



So how might this apply to real life? Good task switchers may be better motivated to switch or better activators of their emotional and social motivational areas.

Poor task switchers may not be poor 'executives', but rather poorer at social and / or emotional motivation (for the job of task-switching, at least). It's true that some of the kids we see primarily for task-switching difficulties may have good sustained attention for activities of their own interest. The problem comes when the teacher, parent, or other outside authority, wants them to do what they want to do.

So maybe we shouldn't be too hasty about lumping 'poor transitioning' in with ADD or ADHD behaviors. Poor task switching may reflect poor general cognitive flexibility in some cases, but a different motivation or reward framework should also be considered in the differential.

Task Switching, Motivation, and VMPFC

7 comments:

  1. Theresa10:22 PM

    As someone on the autistic spectrum (Asperger's probably - not fully diagnosed yet), this research made sense to me.

    As a rule -- although not 100% of the time -- I do not feel that sense of reward or emotional satisfaction when interacting socially, whereas when I am entertaining one of my own interests I do feel satisfied. It's often difficult, if not downright impossible, to have to switch gears from one of my own interests to have to engage in something I'm not interested in -- it's often just frustrating as I feel "deprived" of satisfying my own interest (kind-of like an addict being deprived of their fix, perhaps!) -- sometimes a forced gear-shift can really feel like torture.

    That task-switching ability might be related to an emotional/social motivation reward center in the brain really fits for people on the autistic spectrum, I think, since we do not feel rewarded by social interaction to begin with -- not to the same degree as non-autists anyway.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your reflections, Theresa. There are distinct motivational pathways for social and non-social rewards, and like differences that occur among individuals as well as between diagnosed 'groups' like those on the autism spectrum.

    Interestingly, some researchers have made the observation that children with the diagnosis of high functioning autism may have a higher than average respect for social rules, but more from cognitive rationale for good social interactions, than from an emotionally-motivated one.

    A quote from the movie Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind - "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable."

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  3. Hi!

    As a person with ADHD, what you posted about makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, I do not feel sense of reward in tasks that do not involve social interactions. Nevertheless, I can sustain attention IF the non-social task is one of interest to me.

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  4. Theresa1:34 AM

    "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable."

    What a perfect quote (from a perfect movie!). Describes very well the reasoning behind the choices many a HFA makes during social interaction. :)

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  5. This is fascinating, and very timely for us. My son is 9, and extremely bright/gifted. Started reading at 2.5 yrs., and hasn't stopped since. Also very gifted in mathematics, and very frustrated with the slow pace of learning in school. Interestingly, transitions have always been a huge problem for him, starting in toddlerhood. He has to be given advanced warning on any change to be made, or it is very difficult for him. He also is reluctant to do things that are not of inherent interest or importance to him, leaving some (like teachers) to think that while capable, he is stubborn, difficult, or distracted. How does one affect the emotional/social motivation reward center in the brain referenced above?? He has been referred for ADHD diagnosis 2ce, and both times come back that he "doesn't have it," and now seems to be suffering from perfectionism/anxiety. This sounds much more like it. Is there a way to improve his task-switching ability? How can we treat such a condition? Thanks SO much.

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  6. This is fascinating, and very timely for us. My son is 9, and extremely bright/gifted. Started reading at 2.5 yrs., and hasn't stopped since. Also very gifted in mathematics, and very frustrated with the slow pace of learning in school. Interestingly, transitions have always been a huge problem for him, starting in toddlerhood. He has to be given advanced warning on any change to be made, or it is very difficult for him. He also is reluctant to do things that are not of inherent interest or importance to him, leaving some (like teachers) to think that while capable, he is stubborn, difficult, or distracted. How does one affect the emotional/social motivation reward center in the brain referenced above?? He has been referred for ADHD diagnosis 2ce, and both times come back that he "doesn't have it," and now seems to be suffering from perfectionism/anxiety. This sounds much more like it. Is there a way to improve his task-switching ability? How can we treat such a condition? Thanks SO much.

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  7. For gifted children, often it's really valuable having them reflect (and when appropriate, critique)their own tendencies and temperament.

    We like drawing the analogy between Ben Hur and the four horses driving his chariot - and the gifted "brains on fire." You have to be stronger to hold the horses together and get them driving in one direction, than if you only had one horse.

    All children do better with practice as task switching, but it's important at this age to give him more responsibility in the decision making process in general.

    It's not uncommon that these kids have a smaller circle that they really feel allegience to (e.g. their immediate family), and then having heart-to-heart talks about what different responsibilities there are (ought to do, got to do, like to do) and possibilities for compromise can allow you to make progress.

    Hope some of this helps,

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