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MIT Research News

November 19, 2018

How the brain switches between different sets of rules

When you slow down after exiting the highway, or hush your voice in the library, you’re using this brain mechanism.

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

Cognitive flexibility — the brain’s ability to switch between different rules or action plans depending on the context — is key to many of our everyday activities. For example, imagine you’re driving on a highway at 65 miles per hour. When you exit onto a local street, you realize that the situation has changed and you need to slow down.

When we move between different contexts like this, our brain holds multiple sets of rules in mind so that it can switch to the appropriate one when necessary. These neural representations of task rules are maintained in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning action.