Do Actions and Reactions Depend on Higher Cognitive Functions

From the Lecture Series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

A person’s environment affects not only their behavior but also their brain’s physical development. Behaviors, thoughts, talks, and events around a person can be internalized in the brain and recorded for future use. This means that the environment forms many of a person’s actions and reactions when they do not even realize it. So, what do the higher cognitive functions do?

A set of shaped wooden tiles showing a test for cognitive function.
People had been misguided into believing that with the higher cognitive functions they could act and react much more intentionally than reality. (Image: Atthapon Raksthaput/Shutterstock)

The most familiar experience of how the environment affects a person is how they pick up the accent of the area they live in or spend a long while in. The change of accent is not a conscious choice, but the chameleon effect, which is a result of neurological structure. The minor neurons internalize behaviors that one observes. When a person is feeding a child, they tend to open their mouth and close it every time the child does. This is not to teach the child how to eat, but reflex created by the mirror neurons.

Despite what it might look like, the brain does not store observed behaviors as external events. They are stored in the same sort of way as if the person has also acted in that way.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Brain’s Reaction to Different Observations

Determined boy exercising on monkey bar during obstacle course in boot camp.
People tend to think they decide how they act and react, but this is not how the brain works. They make many decisions unconsciously. (Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

If a person and a robot do exactly the same thing, the brain will notice the difference and store only the human behavior in the ‘personal experience’ manner and connect with it. Human behavior becomes part of the person and allows them to empathize and care about others. In other words, morality is made possible by the neurological processes, although it has complicated aspects.

Morality and humanity are created through fully reactive brain responses to the environment.

Learn more about the birth of psychology.

Emotional Contagion

Taking cues from the environment on how to feel is called emotional contagion. For example, in laughter yoga, people start with fake laughs, but eventually, the laughter turns real, and no one can stand there without laughing. Laughter, like many other emotions, is contagious. This is the reason jokes are funnier at a stadium with people laughing, and some comedies have laugh tracks at some scenes. In the 1980s, people even claimed that it made them enjoy the film much better with the laugh tracks as they felt like they were laughing with others. Much of a person’s behavior, unlike what people think, is precognitive.

Precognitive Behavior

In the 1980s, the American psychologist Benjamin Libet explained how the brain makes decisions precognitively before the conscious mind decides. For example, when someone picks up a cookie, their brain has moved their hand to get the cookie before their mind has decided that they want it.

There are parallel processes going on in the brain at different parts. The amygdala deals with many of the automatic and precognitive aspects, but the thoughtful, cognitive functions occur in the frontal cortex. Usually, an action or reaction forms thoroughly reflexively in the amygdala and the frontal lobe immediately afterward creates a coherent narrative that helps justify the action. So, what do the higher cognitive functions do?

Learn more about Jung and the behaviorists.

Do the Higher Cognitive Functions Do Anything?

In actions and reactions, the main determinative part of the brain is the one that deals with reflexes and recorded and internalized behavior. People usually believe their actions result from free will and the higher cognitive functions, but that is not the reality. According to studies, only about 5% of a person’s decisions are caused by conscious attention to situations! In other words, about 95%—the vast majority—of the decisions are made by the non-cognitive part of the brain.

A woman on the beach hurrying away from an incoming wave.
If people wanted to make every decision through the higher cognitive functions, they would act so poorly in many situations that it would make it hard to survive. (Image: Carlos G. Lopez/Shutterstock)

The emotional and interpretive elements are distinct, which helps humans react and act much better than when they have to think about it in many situations. However, despite common belief, the part responsible for thinking is not responsible for most decisions. Mostly, decisions come from the connection between the brain and the world, more so than between the contemplative mind and the world.

People are much more a part of their surroundings than they used to think. This is what the precognitive actions and reactions prove. This is what explains the importance of the environment and culture on individuals. The higher cognitive functions are far away from leading people’s lives.

Common Questions About Higher Cognitive Functions

Q: What is emotional contagion?

Emotional contagion explains how emotions can be contagious and spread in a group of people. For example, when somebody starts laughing in a group, the others will eventually laugh too. It is not an intentional action led by higher cognitive functions.

Q: Does a person determine how they feel?

Not really. To some degree, they do, but much of it is precognitive, and the higher cognitive functions cannot control this.

Q: What did Benjamin Libet do?

He demonstrated that the firing of the necessary neurons in the brain to execute actions a person believes to be freely and consciously determined, actually occurs before the parts of the brain associated with cognition are invoked. For example, the brain begins to move someone’s hand to pick up the cookie before their higher cognitive functions decide that they want a cookie.

Q: How does a person usually make decisions?

Very often, the decisions come from the connection between the brain and the world, not the one between the contemplative mind and the world, that is, not the higher cognitive functions.

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