David Badre


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

Cover Interview of December 16, 2020

The wide angle

Cognitive control and its mechanisms in the brain affect just about everything we do. They affect our ability to be productive, to multitask, to resist our impulses, to navigate our digital world, and even to remember. Cognitive control shapes both how we grow up into independent adults and how we maintain that independence as we age. And, cognitive control function is commonly affected in a wide array of psychiatric and neurological health problems. This book provides a framework for understanding cognitive control across its diverse facets in terms of the science behind it.

I have long been curious about the mind and brain. I want to understand how it is that humans can be so ingenious and adaptable across such a wide range of circumstances. What other species could enact a sudden, coordinated change in its behavior almost worldwide in response to a pandemic, like we’ve witnessed in response to COVID-19 in the past several months?

Consider that many of us learned how to do our work remotely, routinely using new applications like Zoom or Slack that we hadn’t used before. We found new ways to find food, to meet with friends, and to organize our lives. We added new everyday routines few of us would have imagined adding before, like remembering to bring a mask whenever you leave the house. The very course of our daily lives changed radically, and yet we made these changes in a matter of days and weeks. It didn’t require thousands of trial-and-error learning events or thousands of years of evolution to develop these behaviors. We did them nearly overnight because of our capacity for cognitive control.

Of course, while our ability to make these changes is astonishing, it also important to ask why all this is so hard. Why does it feel so exhausting this year? Why is it so hard for parents when their children are home while they try to work? And, more ominously, why do we see widespread “pandemic fatigue”, meaning that people worldwide are complying less and less with behaviors that can help mitigate the virus spread?

The book does not address COVID directly, but the topics we cover provide insight into questions like these. I’ve devoted my scientific career to investigating these questions with a focus on the neuroscience of cognitive control. On Task is a chance to offer a first introduction to this topic to a non-specialist audience.