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Brain Functions: Behavioral Inhibition, Behavioral Flexibility, and Cognitive Control


We all set goals in life. But because our environment's always changing, to do so we need to constantly modify our strategies and behavior. Behavioral inhibition, behavioral flexibility, attentional shifting, and cognitive control are mental processes that enable us to adapt to the changing world around us.

When an action is repeated, it tends to become routine and automatic; executing it requires less and less mental control and effort. This is very useful when the context you're operating in is reasonably stable. But as soon as the context changes, automatic actions may not be feasible or workable, so we need cognitive processes that let us replace them with others better suited to the new context.

For example, say you're visiting a friend who lives six miles from your house, and that you take the same road on every visit -- you could almost drive there with your eyes closed. This time, though, you find an obstacle blocking the road halfway there. You then need to interrupt your "autopilot" mode and switch to another strategy, such as coming up with an alternate route. Assume you need to consult a road map to find that route, while continuing to drive -- you must now keep shifting your focus between the map and the road, without losing track of where you are on the map and without getting into an accident. If you take an unfamiliar residential road, you need to slow down because the speed limit is lower and your risk of making a mistake increases.

More on Inhibition, Flexibility, and Cognitive Control

Behavioral Inhibition

Many cognitive processes are involved in allowing us to fluidly adapt to our surroundings. In the previous example, the driver had to inhibit his behavior to avoid running into the obstacle. Behavioral inhibition is the brain function that prevents us from producing a response no longer suited to the context.

We can inhibit our actions and behaviors while they are in progress, and we can also inhibit our emotions and memories. Different parts of the prefrontal cortex, at the very front of the brain, are used to interrupt these various types of behaviors or thoughts. Some theories even suggest that the role of the prefrontal cortex is to stop all ill-suited actions or thoughts, to leave room for more appropriate actions.

Behavioral Flexibility and Attentional Shifting

Beyond simple inhibition, this brain function not only prevents us from carrying out inappropriate actions but also determines a new response strategy. In our last example, besides interrupting the behavior in progress (inhibition), the driver has to select a new route to the destination (flexibility). He must also exercise flexibility by shifting his attention between the road and the map (attentional shifting). This change in priority in our ability to focus is critical when driving a car because it lets us drive while still paying attention to traffic signs and unforeseen circumstances like, say, another car passing on the left.

The ability to adapt to a changing environment tends to decline rapidly with age. So improving your behavioral flexibility and attentional shifting skills can, among other things, keep your driving skills sharp for years to come.

C) Cognitive Control

Cognitive control includes the ability to recognize and understand the context in which an event is taking place and select the right response. Closely related to this is a surveillance system that alerts us to any conflicts between a course of action and the expected result, or between two contradictory pieces of information.

In our example, the reality of driving in a residential area should lead to a change in behavior; the driver should slow down and become more careful.


According to recent experiments using MRI and PET scans, the role of understanding context is governed by a specific region of the prefrontal cortex in the front part of the brain, whereas the surveillance system is situated beneath the prefrontal cortex in an area called the anterior cingulate cortex.