David Badre


On his book On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done

Cover Interview of December 16, 2020

In a nutshell

On any given day, we accomplish a wide range of tasks from big long-term goals down to the simplest chores like making a cup of coffee. If we have a new goal in mind, we can even perform tasks that we have never done before. (I’m doing that right now). This all seems routine to us, but no other species on the planet and no Artificial Intelligence yet built comes even close to this ability. On Task is about how we do this; in other words, the book explains the science behind how our brains get things done.

At the heart of this ability to get things done is a function that neuroscientists term cognitive control or executive function. Cognitive control is what allows us to bridge our knowledge with action and to perform any task that meets our goals. Neuroscience and psychology have taught us that it is not enough to want to do a task or even to be able to state the rules for doing so; our brain needs a way of taking that knowledge and building a plan to execute it. And it needs to adjust what we are doing along the way to keep us on track. Ultimately, it needs a way of mapping what we want to do to how we actually do it. That is the function that cognitive control serves, and humans do it better than any other species.

This is why we can do just about any task that we can conceive. But this gift of nimble cognition also comes with some costs and limitations, which likewise impact our lives. For example, the difficulties we have in multitasking, the exhaustion we experience when we exert mental effort, the everyday slips and errors we commit in our actions, and the years we spend as children growing and developing toward independence are all consequences of this unique system for controlling our behavior.

My book is for readers who are generally curious about the brain and cognition, as well as those with interests in specific topics, such as decision making, memory, productivity, child development, aging, the benefits of “brain training”, and the challenges of mental health. The book addresses all of these topics through the lens of cognitive control. On Task invites readers to explore this unfamiliar aspect of cognitive function and to ask how the brain translates what we know and conceive into how we act.