We need our prefrontal cortex to work

by Jon G. Allen, PhD on February 7, 2013 · 0 comments

in mentalizing,neurobiology

I am fortunate to have a challenging job that requires flexibility and creativity, but it’s often difficult and sometimes downright exhausting. One time I complained about this effortful experience to our former chief of staff, Richard Munich, and he responded, “That’s why they call it work!” I find Dick’s matter-of-fact attitude toward the difficulty of work to be consoling, and I repeat his words to myself when I struggle to marshal the required effort.

Living requires brain power, and challenging work pushes brain power to the limit. Of all our body organs, the brain uses the most energy. Compared to other animals, the human prefrontal cortex occupies a disproportionate amount of brain territory. This brain region plays a key role in challenging work, and its activity consumes a lot of energy.

Demanding work

I was dumbstruck when I came across a list of specific challenges that tax our prefrontal cortex; I thought immediately, “That’s work!” Here’s the list that grabbed my attention, compiled by Paul Burgess and colleagues at University College London:

  1. A number of discrete and different tasks have to be completed.
  2. Performance on these tasks needs to be dovetailed in order to be time-effective.
  3. Due to either cognitive or physical constraints, only one task can be performed at any one time.
  4. The times for return to task are not signaled directly by the situation.
  5. There is no moment-by-moment performance feedback … failures are not signaled at the time they occur.
  6. Unforeseen interruptions, sometimes of high priority, will occasionally occur, and things will not always go as planned.
  7. Tasks usually differ in terms of priority, difficulty and the length of time they will occupy.
  8. People decide for themselves what constitutes adequate performance.

Broadly speaking, these challenges call for multitasking. These prefrontal capacities are called “executive” functions, and the list I just quoted would be as familiar to “executives” at work as it was to me. We are all executives. In our increasingly multitasking world, this list is typical of the demands of many persons’ daily lives, going far beyond professional work. Review the list while holding in mind the demands of raising children and running a household.

The prefrontal cortex and mentalizing

Consider also challenging interpersonal situations with this list in mind. A common example is working on a complicated project while trying to forge collaboration among several group members — or family members. Yet much of the list also pertains to difficult negotiations in a relationship, for example, parents coordinating the demands of work, childcare and household responsibilities. As you may have noticed, relating to people can be hard work. Mentalizing — attending to mental states in others and yourself — is part of this interpersonal work. Consistent with the complexity of interpersonal problem solving — and managing our own desires, thoughts, and feelings — the prefrontal cortex plays a key role in mentalizing.

Unfortunately, common psychiatric disorders impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, thereby compromising the capacity to engage in complex problem solving — intellectual and interpersonal — that our contemporary multitasking world demands. Thus it is not surprising that psychiatric disorders can be associated with significant disability in occupational and social functioning.

Some appreciation of their neurobiological basis helps us take psychiatric disorders seriously as physical illnesses, which can help combat stigma. Fortunately, treatment of psychiatric disorders — not only with medication but also psychotherapy — normalizes brain function, enabling patients to resume the challenging work of everyday living.

Editor’s note: If you enjoyed Dr. Allen’s post, please check out some of his other recent posts:


Burgess, P.W., Gonen-Yaacovi, G., & Volle, E. (2012). Rostral prefrontal cortex: What neuroimaging can learn from human neuropsychology. In B. Levine & F.I.M. Craik (Eds.), Mind and the frontal lobes: Cognition, behavior, and brain imaging, pp. 47-92. New York: Oxford University Press. (The list of challenges is quoted from page 81.)

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