Full course description
Although action usually refers to a physical movement, human and animal actions are part of meaningful behaviour. This means that they are executed with a particular goal or intention to bring about something that is valued. In this course students will investigate how the brain is organised to produce actions that serve particular purposes. Students will focus primarily on voluntary actions. Such actions involve a motivational component, but also cognitive considerations, attention choices and motor options. For each of these components decisions have to be made. Students will see that different parts of the brain are involved in these decisions, in close collaboration with subcortical structures such as basal ganglia.
Students will discuss the hierarchical organisation of the motor system - the apparatus to generate actions that influence the environment. Then, students will focus on the cognitive system, which links potential actions (e.g., entering a room) to the available options in a particular situation (e.g., is the door open or closed). The cognitive system does this by relying on the regularities learned previously about this and other situations. Next, students will investigate how our choice of options is dependent on the expected consequences (such as reward, approval, things not happening…) and how much we value these. Lastly, after having decided which option we want, we still need to establish what is the best action to actually obtain the chosen option. This requires monitoring the outcome of actions, and in case of failing to obtain the chosen option, learning to do better next time. Students will also investigate how the emotional and social aspects of the situation can influence the choice of options.
This tour will make clear that meaningful behaviour engages the whole brain. Exemplary chosen studies on animals and humans will make clear the differential contributions of subsystems of the brain, while discussion of diseases (Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, apathy) and clinical lesions affecting these subsystems will demonstrate their relevance for human behaviour.
Students are able:
- to describe the role of (sub-)cortical structures for movement and action selection (incl. prefrontal cortex);
- to explain the relation between movement and cognition, and translate this knowledge to motor/cognitive impairment in patients with Parkinson’s disease;
- to distinguish between choosing an option based on expected reward and choosing an action to bring closer the chosen option. To relate actions and decisions to the moral and social context (i.e. social cognition, moral decisions, altruistic, and cooperative behaviour).